Scarborough by Fiona Evans is a two act play set in a hotel room, so Prime Cut have taken it out of the theatre and put it into real hotel rooms, in the latest of a number of performances by various theatre companies that experiment with staging outside of theatre spaces. The audience for this show gather in the new Ramada Encore in an area of Belfast that is being developed as a new arts quarter, a largely deserted area still behind scaffolding and hoarding. Perhaps coincidentally, this exterior landscape retrospectively adds to the sense of secrecy and hidden things which is at the core of the performance. Inside the hotel, the audience checks in at the desk alongside the guests, receives a ‘do not disturb’ sign and is divided into two groups of six. On the wall of the lobby is a projection of a pink neon sign, reading ‘Scarborough’; apart from this, the fictional hotel of the play and the actual hotel blend into one. During the performance, being ushered to the rooms where the play is staged, it becomes difficult not to read the other guests and workers in the hotel as part of the production.
The play is staged in two hotel rooms a floor apart, with the two acts running back-to-back, so the groups of spectators change over during the interval. The acts mirror each other, with the sole difference that the gender roles are reversed: in each, a couple away for a romantic weekend gradually reveals the truth of their feelings and motivations. In each case, a teacher is involved with a teenage pupil who is just about to celebrate their 16th birthday and ‘become legal’. The teachers– male and female – seem acutely aware of the career risk involved, though largely blind to the ethics of the situation; but each reveals how their own past relationships have motivated their involvement now with young pupils. Throughout these emotionally fraught scenes in a standard-size hotel room, dominated by a bed on which the characters wrestle, cuddle, argue and weep, the audience sit on benches by the wall amid the crumpled clothes, half-empty bottles of wkd and condom wrappers. The characters never go out – the teachers in each case are imprisoned by their fear of exposure.
Emma Jordan has clearly given thought to avoiding many common problems of this kind of situated performance: she has worked out the sightlines and provided seating that blends into the space; she has worked with a talented group of actors who deliver exceptionally good, focused performances under the intimate scrutiny of the spectators; and she has identified what the staging can offer in terms of creating a sense of claustrophobic tension and voyeuristic discomfort. The spectators are close enough to the performers to touch them; we sit amongst their detritus and spy on them, and the sense of watching something private clearly caused discomfort to some. Although the choice of venue is something of a gimmick, staging the play in the ‘real’ space of the hotel room lends a suggestion of ‘realness’ to the performance, which gives the tired narrative a quality of gentleness and sadness that it would not otherwise have. The absence of a curtain call to mark the end of the performance adds to the sense of having eavesdropped, and the running of the scenes back-to-back suggests a snippet of someone else’s life that continues after the hotel room door closes.
The narrative is the least interesting part of the work: after all, How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel’s controversial drama about a young girl’s relationship with her abuser, was first staged more than a decade ago. In Scarborough the characters’ backgrounds, revealed through the dialogue, reiterate commonplaces about the cycle of abuse and about the hypocrisy of public attitudes that celebrate relationships between aging celebrities and their very young partners while denouncing similar relationships in everyday life.
However, the clichéd text is given a fresh quality in this production. In the overlapping of the real and fictional spaces, the spectators are led into an engagement with the characters and their predicaments. As played by Lisa Hogg and Brian Markey, the simplicity and sincerity of the feelings of the two younger characters for their partners becomes a moving representation of the idealism of the young, while Clarke and Kennedy play a jaded middle-age that can see only the complications and inevitable disappointments of prolonging the relationships beyond the weekend. The achievement of this production is that it allows the audience to see the conflict between the characters outside the frames of sensationalist headlines, while commenting on the unhappiness of the relationship. The older characters become unsympathetic through their self-absorbed pursuit of lost youth and their ungenerous inability to see the damage they have done; the younger characters are sympathetic because of their vulnerability and the innocence that prevents them seeing what is happening. This is a skilful production, well conceived, directed and performed.
Lisa Fitzpatrick lectures in Drama at the University of Ulster.