Having thoroughly enjoyed Mike Bartlett’s play Love, Love, Love a couple of days ago I was pleased to see another of his early plays Contractions was available online. It is being produced by Deafinitely Theatre which, as the name implies, is a bilingual theatre company which presents plays using a mix of English and British Sign Language enabling hearing impaired artists, writers and audience members to find a voice which echoes their own experience.
Contractions is an intense two hander about the power of corporate business to intrude on the lives of its employees. Emma has been summoned to her appraisal by her (nameless) Manager where she learns that she is suspected of breaking her contract because she has entered into a relationship with Darren, another (unseen) employee and that crucially she has failed to clear this with management as her terms and conditions state. At first Emma denies that, even though she accepted a dinner date, this is anything more than a friendship. From there things gradually spiral out of control. Emma is summoned to various further meetings and each time she pointedly moves her chair further and further away from the Manager. She finds she is defending herself against all sorts of ludicrous accusations some of which have come from Darren himself; it transpires that he has been interviewed separately. But the imperious and implacable Manager is relentless in grinding Emma down, going as far as having Darren shipped off to Kiev though this is explained away as being a company necessity; this despite the fact that Emma is now pregnant. From there things really start to go downhill.
Abigail Poulton plays Emma with, at first, a sparky demeanour and a sense of incredulity that the company has the right to pry into and then dictate her private life. Towards the end of the play she becomes a worn out drudge with a haggard look and a subservience to her working life that makes her into something of an automaton. Meanwhile the Manager as portrayed by Fifi Garfield has a very cool exterior which is made all the more frightening because you can see that she actually believes in what she is doing to her employee. Poulton works in a simultaneous mixture of English and BSL while Garfield exclusively uses the latter. For those like me who are not conversant with BSL this is not as difficult as I might be making it sound. Poulton/Emma repeats key points and Garfield accompanies her signing with the use of charts, diagrams, a full on projected slide show and other ways of representing her dialogue. An unfortunate side effect is that this stretches the play out by, I would estimate, an extra 20 minutes which is a long while when the total running time is only 75 minutes. A sense of urgency and of things hurtling to an inevitable conclusion rather go by the board. However, meaning is not a problem as the techniques used, along with the well structured facial expressions and body language of the two actors, is almost always enough to get the message over. In one key scene the two women argue exclusively in BSL and we are left in no doubt of how they both feel about each other. The one misstep (though this is, fortunately, only in one scene) is having The Manager’s voice emerge from a portable tape machine. This works in terms of making her responses seem corporate and bland but doesn’t work within the narrative.
This is a site specific piece of work set on the once trading floor of J P Morgan so there is plenty of glass and chrome about and there are even glimpses of real office life going on up above the playing area. On video, of course, this becomes just another location so I’m sure the production loses some of its edge because of that. The play is directed by company artistic director Paula Garfield who extracts a good deal of menace from proceedings although, as already noted, the necessary slow pacing does have a tendency to detract from the overall success of the piece. If I’m being honest in the normal course of events, I would probably not have chosen to watch a production which was almost certainly not aimed at me, but I found myself becoming increasingly drawn in by the skill with which it is all put together. The company will be streaming a further show in July, Sarah Kane’s last enigmatic play 4:48 Psychosis. I intend to return.
Contractions is available via Deafinitely Theatre’s website until the end of June. Click here
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