wed 19/06/2024

Love, National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Love, National Theatre

Love, National Theatre

Family desperation simmers, then erupts in Alexander Zeldin's devastating social drama

In a lonely place: Anna Calder-Marshall, stunning as BarbaraAll images Sarah Lee

For a play that ends with 15 minutes of breath-stopping, jaw-dropping theatre that is surely as powerful as anything the departing year has brought us, Alexander Zeldin’s Love has a challenging relationship to the concept of drama itself. For the greater part of its 90-minute run, the writer seems almost to be exploring the possibilities of “fly-on-the-wall” theatre. Is that a contradiction in terms?

If drama is about human inter-relationships that propel, and are in turn propelled by action, Love might count as “anti-drama”. At least, until that devastating finale that throws all such distinctions to the winds.

If that sounds in any way abstract, the world we see in Love is as concrete and grounded in contemporary British reality as it could be – in the deeply, shamefullly depressing reality of welfare cuts that in this decade have driven a not-so-small part of the population to the edge, taking away so much human dignity in the process. The play’s single space is an anonymous kitchen-cum-lounge in a shared temporary accommodation hostel, with tables, a few chairs, the soulless furniture of waiting-rooms; behind it numbered doors open into the rooms, while off to one side is the bathroom that everyone has to share (queuing for the toilet, or getting there first, is an issue in itself). There’s the proverbial theatrical kitchen sink, of course, which doubles for one of the play’s tenderest moments, a fridge – each shelf someone’s particular domain – a kettle and a toaster.

There’s no traditional boundary between stage, such as it is, and auditorium either 

Natasha Jenkins’s set gets that atmosphere to a tee, transforming the Dorfman into the epitome of some anonymous public institutional space – sky-lights that don’t let in illumination, a back wall that hasn’t seen a fresh coat of paint in ages, its token picture the anomaly that proves the rule – the kind of anteroom you’d find in any hospital, care-home or prison. (We can only guess whether Zeldin writes with any particular physical space in mind, but the result here is the spitting image of the warehouse studio of Hackney’s Yard Theatre, where his much-lauded 2015 Beyond Caring debuted before its transfer to the National). There’s no traditional boundary between stage, such as it is, and auditorium either: the actors occasionally move out into the front rows, which are just ordinary chairs, while Marc Williams’s lighting never goes down, keeping cast and audience at the same level, varied only when characters switch lights on and off.

Zeldin's characters appear wordlessly at first, their entries driven by need – a piece of toast, or the loo (each takes their own roll, wiping it clean first: the devil in the details of this enforced cohabitation). We see the most of the inhabitants of rooms four and five, who somehow represent the beginnings and ends of life. In the first, there’s Colin (Nick Holder), middle-aged, overweight, uneasily bluff, caring with devotion for his elderly mum, Barbara (Anna Calder-Marshall, quite stunning in her expressions, main picture), who’s unsteady on her feet; his life revolves around her – he has little else – and one scene, in which he washes her hair, has all the closeness of an old marriage.

Their neighbours are Emma and Dean, young parents played by Janet Etuk and Luke Clarke (pictured above, both from Beyond Caring, and before that Zeldin’s 2012 NT Studio production, Doing the Idiots); his enduring working relationships with actors isn’t the only thing Zeldin shares with Mike Leigh – both develop stories in close collaboration with their cast. They’re sharing their single room with their young children, slightly stroppy son Jason, who’s already a would-be rapper, and calmer Paige, who finds moments of closeness with Barbara as the play goes on. It’s just weeks before Christmas, and they have a school play to rehearse. More significantly, Emma is heavily pregnant, and they are desperate to be in a new home by the time the baby comes.

Zeldin creates distinctly individual characters rather than ones that in some way represent a wider class, but the balance between these two families is indicative. Colin and his mother are older generation, probably mostly happy with their lot before they apparently lost their council home in a redevelopment; Emma and Dean have been floored by being evicted after a sudden rent hike (to top it all, that happened in such a way that their benefits are now sanctioned). They’re different in another way, too: when Colin reveals how he's been there for twelve months already, he astonishes Emma who’s still at the stage of early optimism as she recites how it’s illegal for the council to keep anyone in the same place for more than six weeks. He may be immured to it (“don’t make a fuss”), but it doesn’t stop him brutally demolishing her hopes – “just because you’re pregnant doesn’t mean you can’t get fucked.” The F-word gets quite liberal usage here, most often for a lightening – hard to say, comic – effect that’s matched by some of the visual touches that Zeldin puts into his own production. (Janet Etuk with Nick Holder, pictured below)

On the edge of this, Zeldin includes two other characters, asylum-seekers, whose names we barely learn: she’s from Sudan, existing in this space a while already, he from Syria, newly arrived (and soon departed, we have no idea where). It’s hard to say that their presence in the play is entirely satisfactory, the roles so fragmentary, except to emphasise how this environment must be doubly alienating for them, both uprooted from their home culture and dumped into this place that’s hardly much better than a holding centre. There’s one poignant moment when they discover that both speak Arabic, and their whole demeanours seem to change, to become alive, as they move into their native tongue.

For the two families, it’s another matter. The support system that might have sustained them in another time has been demolished, leaving them with nothing except hours of anxious waiting at the benefit office, struggling to contain helpless anger (no less than Leigh, Love shows the mark of that other great British film director, Ken Loach, particularly his last film I, Daniel Blake). It’s chilling to think that this setting, so barren even when feebly brightened with Christmas tinsel, will in all probability soon see the passing of one life, Barbara’s, and the coming of a new one, Emma’s child.

Two phrases are repeated, almost mantra-like: “I love you” and “I’m sorry”, the former the only antidote to this desperation, the latter the only human response to the stress of living in such conditions. Only once does violence erupt – and it’s nothing major in itself – but the impact is scalding. In that one moment Zeldin goes beyond the immediate world in which his play is set, and takes us roiling right back into the depths of past lives and pains. Coming out of the blue, that extraordinary moment, and its immediate follow-up, defines a play that may not be always even in dramatic terms – Zeldin has said how he isn’t interested in theatre as entertainment – but one which hits home hard, very hard. Quite as it needs to.

  • Love is at the Dorfman, National Theatre to January 10, 2017, then at Birmingham Repertory Theatre January 26 to February 11. Alexander Zeldin will be discussing Love with Samira Ahmed in the Dorfman Theatre on 4 January
  • Read more theatre reviews on theartsdesk
Only once does violence erupt – and it’s nothing major in itself - but the impact is scalding


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters