Cervantes Theatre, London – until 14 October 2017
Performances in Spanish: Mondays to Wednesdays
Performances in English: Thursdays to Saturdays
Written by Spanish playwright, Guillem Clua, The Swallow is a tightly written, brilliantly directed and acted rollercoaster of anger, heartache, hatred, humour, recriminations, guilt and sorrow.
It is a powerful piece of writing evoking strong feelings and provoking fascinating thoughts and ideas. Fortunately, the cast – performed in English by David Luque as Ray and Jeryl Burgess as Emily – were more than capable of matching the challenges presented in this excellent play. The Cervantes Theatre stage is small enough and the set just right for this intimate two-hander.
The Swallow deals with more than the heart-wrenching blow of the sudden death of loved ones and the resulting overwhelming feelings of sorrow and guilt.
The anger, present in both Ray and Emily, was palpable. It wasn’t the sort of anger that made you fear that there would be physical violence. It was anger which wreaked havoc on their feelings and thoughts. Ray and Emily tortured each other with their words; tearing huge chunks out of each other’s emotions and disturbing their minds.
There is a lot of humour in the play. Emily, whose personality is more bitter and resentful, served Ray a number of caustic witty one-liners. The play begins with Ray visiting Emily’s home to learn from her how to sing a song for, he claims, his mother’s funeral. Emily, who is a singing teacher, tries out Ray’s singing by playing piano scales. She tells him that his singing is poor. Ray says “Father Matthew said I had a good ear,” Emily replies with a very funny one-liner, “I’ve got two feet, that doesn’t mean I can run a marathon.” Ray, although full of sorrow and also harbouring a lot of resentment, has a more playful sense of humour. When Emily and Ray share their coping mechanisms for people’s reaction to their losses, Ray describes how he would wind them up by asking people for impossible things, his examples are very funny. Emily explains how she did various classes far away from people she knew, to avoid being recognised, she would reinvent herself, making up different names and stories. Then we are plunged back into Ray’s and Emily’s pain. They show the pain of guilt, of loss and the pain of recrimination and it really hurts.
Guillem Clua has written such a fantastic script, superbly directed by Paula Paz, at times, it is like watching a fast-paced tennis rally with each character scoring points over the other, but no-one winning the game. The power dynamic between Emily and Ray constantly shifted, with one gaining the upper hand then switching to the other at key points in the plot. I would think Emily made a good point, but then I would think that Ray’s retort was true too. So it made me look at the characters from Emily’s point of view, then Ray’s point of view, back and forth. Due to the skilful acting, writing and directing, I was constantly changing sides.
Jeryl Burgess made Emily’s personality visible and visceral. I could see her fighting herself; on her face, in her body language and in her voice, where I could feel the words and watch their impact. The character development, excellently written by Guillem Clua, and matched by Jeryl Burgess’ superb acting, made me understand and even empathise with Emily, even though I strongly disagreed with her prejudice and the hateful things she expressed.
Ray is a great match for the sarcastic and sometimes hateful Emily, calling out her prejudices and her denial of the reason why her son was killed in a massacre. You can see Ray’s frustration and self-righteous anger with Emily’s repressed persona and hatred. I felt myself tensing up too. He forces her to face the truth. It is great acting.
One of Emily’s reactions to her grief, after she is asked to attend a memorial service to remember her son is heart wrenching. Emily says “I remember him every second…I have my whole life to remember him.” But then the power shifts when Ray asks her “who do you remember?” One of several painful moments for Ray, is when speaking to Emily about his lover’s last moments he says, “at least you didn’t have to watch him die.” Ray’s tragedy is mirrored by the look of horror and pain racing across Emily’s face.
Another wonderful thing about the script and the acting is that it is very naturalistic, very real. The shifts in the power dynamics, during the course of the play, are similar to the ebbs and flows of an argument or conversation. The way each character expressed their grief was also very authentic. It made me think about the losses of my loved ones and churned up long hidden feelings I did not want to revisit. Emily’s and Ray’s grief and my feelings had such a deep impact, I cried. I was embarrassed, so I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only member of the audience who shed a few tears…crying over a play! To be fair David Luque and Jeryl Burgess are so talented and they also had tears in their eyes.
Guillem Clua’s writing raises profound questions, not just the ‘what ifs’ but includes: how much do we know our loved ones? How much do we want to know our loved ones? How much do our loved ones want us to know them? How much do we reveal of ourselves even to those close to us?
The Swallow made me consider some things which I had not really paid too much attention too before. For example how the death of a loved one can affect people at different stages in their lives is highlighted when Emily says to Ray “I won’t deny your pain and loss-you’ll recover, find another man, fall in love, as is right. You have a future. What do I have?” She believes her life is over due to the death of her adult son, especially as an older person.
Please do not think it is a sentimental play it isn’t, even though my response may be.
One last thing, before you see this play hug your loved ones and tell them you love them; you won’t need to be reminded after.
The Swallow is at the Cervantes Theatre London, from 25 September to 14 October 2017 with performances in Spanish from Monday to Wednesday and performances in English from Thursday to Saturday.