First published in The Times, Tuesday March 1 2016
The old adage has it that you’re never more than six feet away from a rat, but something similar could be said of David Harrower’s Blackbird. The Scottish dramatist’s disturbing two-hander, which premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005, is even now in the midst of a run on Broadway and has been adapted for film, to be released later in the year.
The enduring international interest in Harrower’s play is all the more intriguing when you consider its apparent subject: the fraught reunion between a man and woman some 15 years after the end of a sexual relationship that took place when he was 40 and she was 12. In the intervening period, Ray (played by Paul Higgins) has spent time in prison and reinvented himself in a new town under an assumed name. Una (Camrie Palmer), meanwhile, has endured a different form of punishment, alienated from her family and friends and regarded with suspicion, and at times outright hostility, in her hometown.
Pic: Tim Mores
Their encounter takes place in the staff room of Ray’s (now Peter) workplace, where Una discovers him, having spotted his picture in a trade magazine. Harrower divulges little about what his protagonist does for a living or even where he now lives. The sense of anonymity is reinforced in Gareth Nicholls’s production by Neil Haynes’s set design: a bare space with a few stacked chairs made clinical by industrial overhead lighting. It might be a police interrogation room were it not for the rubbish strewn around the floor.
While this mix of squalor and sterility effects an immediate prickle of unease, it also throws an extraordinary emphasis on the slow burning, increasingly raw confrontation, in which questions fly and revelations pile up, leaving both Una and Ray stripped of the identities they have constructed for themselves in the years since they last met.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
In Nicholls’s crisply directed production, Higgins and Palmer create recognisable characters, the power dynamic moving back and forth as our sympathies shift, at times against our better judgement, between them. Higgins has a drawn, haunted look throughout, repeatedly holding out his hands, as though begging for something he can’t quite articulate. Whenever Palmer appears to have the upper hand, she slips back into gaucheness, becoming the 12-year-old girl Ray first encountered at her parents’ barbecue.
Harrower’s description of their relationship is unflinching but also nuanced and ironic. The play derives its power from such textured ambivalence. “You’re some kind of ghost,” Ray tells Una at one point, and Nicholls’s production does exert the icy grip of a ghost story, in which characters are trapped by their shared past and we’re never quite certain whose account to believe.
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