sun 21/07/2024

Either, Hampstead Theatre review - funny, ingenious investigation of gender and love | reviews, news & interviews

Either, Hampstead Theatre review - funny, ingenious investigation of gender and love

Either, Hampstead Theatre review - funny, ingenious investigation of gender and love

First-time playwright Ruby Thomas is a daring and exciting new voice

More than a love triangle: Lizzy Watts, Tilda Wickham and Patrick KnowlesPhotographer: Robert Day

This ingenious short work deftly investigates themes of love and identity with a breezy assurance that marks first time playwright, Ruby Thomas, out as a daring and exciting new voice.

In an age where gender fluidity and polyamory are becoming increasing part of the daily discourse, Either casts a simultaneously humorous and breathtakingly bold light on whether or not gender affects the way you love.

In 1897, Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler wrote the play Reigen, known more widely as La Ronde, which was initially banned by the censors and subsequently condemned by both critics and the public when it was eventually performed in Berlin in 1921. In it he created a “daisy-chain” of love, in which a series of scenes showed different pairs of lovers, the scandalous element being that each lover would appear with a different partner in two subsequent scenes.

I don’t know how well Thomas knows Schnitzler: but formally she has pulled off a work that feels like the equivalent of La Ronde for the 21st century. Guy Jones’s production begins a little patchily, with a flirty exchange between a man and a woman who bump into each other when the man is on a Pride march and the woman is taking a coffee break from work. But suddenly the lighting changes, and the woman is replaced by a man who continues having exactly the same flirtatious conversation.

On Bethany Wells’ equally ingeniously simple design – a white triangular stage with a series of doors through which different characters surreptitiously make their entrances and exits – a whole geometry of potential scenarios plays itself out. Hilariously there’s a gender swap moment during a blow-job in the gender neutral toilets at the Barbican; and another during an argument about the etiquette of having sex and sending emails at the same time. The cast grows from three, to four and eventually to six, and as the men and women deftly jump between lovers, bigger questions arise, about fidelity, identity, and what this all means against the bigger backdrop of mortality.

While there’s plenty of banging, crucially there’s no drum-banging – and that’s what elevates this work. No one delivers diatribes about the rights of one group as opposed to that of another, no-one goes on a lengthy exposition about what this might all mean. Overall the tone is gently comedic: one character frets that “I’ve been to the Iceland and all I could think about in the Blue Lagoon was verrucas.” At a different point another declares, “The Barbican is too brutalist for a heart to heart.” 

Yet all the while you realise you are watching something that is gently revolutionary. In the subtle choreography of Jones’s production, the multicultural cast swap sexualities and identities with ease. They’re all good performances, but Patrick Knowles (Pictured above right) and Tilda Wickham stand out for the subtlety and empathy of what they convey. Bianca Stephens brings a simultaneously emotionally anchored and down-to-earth comedy to proceedings. 

Notably none of these characters are worrying about having children, and it would be interesting to see what that might add to the gender-fluid merry-go-round. In a world that aspires to intellectual and financial equality between the sexes, the gender of your lover may be becoming increasingly irrelevant, but total liberation always becomes more complicated when babies are on the horizon. It’s not a lack in this play that it doesn’t tackle that, and thankfully perceptions of the family are shifting too. Maybe it’s a topic for Ruby Thomas’s next play – whatever form that appears in, it will be fascinating to see what she comes up with next. 


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