A Torontonian relative of ours tells me that the coming man in Canadian dramatic circles is the playwright Jordan Tannahill…. and she’s an agent so I guess she’d know. Variously described in the press as ‘the future of Canadian theatre’ (NOW Magazine), ‘the hottest name in Canadian theatre’ (Montreal Gazette), and ‘the posterchild of a new generation for whom “interdisciplinary” is not a buzzword but a way of life’ (The Globe and Mail), Mr Tannahill looks set to reinvent the art form. For instance his piece Draw Me Close: A Memoir has its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival…but it isn’t actually a film. It combines live performance, virtual reality and animation and has been created in partnership with our own National Theatre. If the trailer is anything to go by it would seem to be an intriguingly bold piece and a step further in boundary pushing than even the RSC’s recent production of The Tempest.
For now though access in Britain to the playwright’s work takes a more conventional form in a production of his 2013 chamber piece Late Company. Here’s what I thought when I saw it last week.
For the first few minutes of Jordan Tannahill’s highly recommended play Late Company at Trafalgar Studios 2 it seems that the title is going to refer to some tardy guests delayed appearance at an evening meal. However, it soon becomes apparent that it actually refers to the hosts’ son, Joel, who is never going to show up because he has died in tragic circumstances. Even so his mother Debora has pointedly still set a place for him at the dinner table and she and husband Michael are clearly having “grief issues”. It transpires that the Dermot family (mother Tamara, father Bill and son Curtis) have been invited round to pick over the bones of what has happened and particularly to examine the part that the latter has played in classmate Joel’s untimely death.
What starts off as a civilized attempt (at least outwardly) to confront issues and share grief soon degenerates into blame apportioning, mudslinging and recriminations. Tannahill takes a surgeon’s knife to the five characters suggesting that they all, in their own ways, have played a part in the tragedy; even Joel himself is not sanctimoniously portrayed as an out and out victim. Thus all are to blame while, at the same time, no one person is.
The five actors in this short and pacy piece are universally good. As the two mothers Lucy Robinson and Lisa Stevenson are shown as the driving forces behind the meeting (though each has her own distinct agenda) and when it comes to it are prepared to defend their sons against all comers. Robinson is particularly heart breaking as the bereaved Debora whose early metallic exterior is emphasised by a clever choice of costume and the displayed (somewhat phallic) steel sculptures which she has created. As we suspect this is all a front and she is, in fact, the first to crack; the actress handles this superbly. Stevenson as Tamara is at first eager (over eager?) to please but reveals hidden depths as the piece progresses and is every bit as protective as her counterpart. In the less showy roles of the two fathers, Todd Boyce and Alex Lowe are able to explore some of the political and class conflicts examined in the play. Thus they reveal their own prejudices which led to Joel and Curtis being the young men that they are/were. As Curtis, David Leopold, has perhaps the most interesting journey to make. Starting as a somewhat stereotypical monosyllabic teen embarrassed by his parents and more interested in his mobile phone than anything else it would be easy to see him as a one dimensional bully. But the cleverness of the writing means that he is ultimately seen as the most tragic figure – both he and Joel are equal victims recalling the lines of one of Philip Larkin’s most famous poems.
Direction by Michael Yale is taut and fluid though (and this was probably just from my seat) there were one or two unfortunate blocking decisions which meant that a major speech became less effective as I gazed at another character’s back for far too long. I also felt the one (key) moment of physical violence failed to work. The cast had clearly done their homework in providing authentic Canadian (rather than generic North American) accents though perhaps words like “out” and “about” were a little over emphasised. These minor quibbles aside though I was kept engaged throughout as this dinner party from hell proceeded along inevitable lines. The set floor, cleverly extended into the audience, made those of us watching feel both part of the action and, at the same time, voyeurs into some uncomfortable moments of truth.
The play raises many interesting questions about parenting, class, gender, sexuality, relationships and the Internet and if, in the end, there are no actual answers provided then this is how it should be. Tannahill has set out to raise issues not provide solutions and in doing so to hold a mirror up to his characters’ actions and mind sets. That said, I had a nagging feeling all through the evening that I’d seen this play before. Plotwise it most closely resembles Yazmina Reza’s God of Carnage where again two families meet up to discuss their offspring’s hostile reactions to each other in an ostensibly civilized manner before descending into recriminations. But ultimately I was reminded more of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls which concludes that while no one person is responsible for the suicide of another, all are partially and collectively culpable…. and perhaps that includes we silent onlookers too*.
So an interesting, if a somewhat more recognisably conventional, introduction to this new(ish) writer’s work. Unlike novels and poetry (cf Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen, for instance) I confess to finding it hard to name another Canadian playwright of note. Perhaps that’s all about to change, eh?