Civilised living can be a straitjacket that makes us mad.
But if we chose to embrace our dark impulses, to rip off the bindings that make us respectable citizens, what then?
Do the social skins we live in protect us from each other and ourselves?
Or would the sundering be liberating, transformative, even rapturous?
These are the US playwright Jen Silverman’s preoccupations, and they shimmer in her alternately seductive and grotesque phantasmagoria Wink.
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It begins with the skinning of a cat.
The terrible deed is performed by Gregor (a nod to the foundation story of shapeshifting, Metamorphosis). The titular cat is his wife’s. The pair are trapped in the nightmarish stasis of middle-class habits, and the cat was the only volatile element remaining. Its autonomy enraged the jealous Gregor.
So he killed it. He buried the insolent beast and kept the skin hidden in a shoebox beneath the floorboards. At secret moments, Gregor clutches Wink’s soft hide and relishes in the evidence of his newfound power. He tells this to his psychologist, Dr Frans, who nods and asks about work.
Only, the cat isn’t dead.
With vengeance in its heart, Wink wriggles up from beneath the earth, a hairless demon-thing. It doesn’t return to its owner, but takes over the house (and bed, and ultimately heart) of the psychologist instead.
Dr Frans is an anti-Freudian gentleman, whose advice to patients’ rising id is to “SLAM IT DOWN! SLAM IT DOWN!” To entertain any thoughts or ideas that threaten the status quo is, in his mind, to invite chaos. Subservience to routine is the only way to impose order on the roiling chaos he senses moving beneath all things. In unpredictability lies the terror of the unknown, the loss of self. But on the other side of terror is overwhelming desire, and perhaps the self needs to be lost in order to grow.
Wink – the avatar of insouciance, of complete disregard to anything but his own will – undoes the good doctor, played with excellent meekness by Matthew Cheetham (also the play’s producer and songwriter). Their dichotomous natures circle each other curiously, the savage creature and the civilised intellectual. They learn from each other, and are better for it.
Meanwhile, the husband and wife undergo their own unravelling in a concussive series of ruptures from reality. The wild passion that began their marriage has become a void, and Sofie (played convincingly by Eloise Snape, also co-producer) is sucked into and through it to emerge as her invented terrorist/seducer, Roland. Her despair and fury in the monotonous, powerless absurdity of her housewife role is answered at last with a new absurdity, full of violence, creativity and explosive agency.
Gregor (Graeme McRae) is also tempted by destruction; only his is turned inward, not outward.
Wink is a play of slippages and shifts, where strangeness is accepted without question, and where horror and fantasy collide. Progressively, the universe swells and reconfigures with new possibilities; identities change and intermingle. Intriguingly, and as the director Anthony Skuse observes in an interview with Silverman, all of the cast can be seen to be leads.
Sam O’Sullivan deserves mention for his feline act, lithe of body and with a self-luxuriating anima. McRae deserves mention for courageously bearing all in the play’s final scenes (nudity warning, folks).
The play’s themes of doubling, illusion and uncertainty are heightened by Siobhan Jett O’Hanlon’s set design. Scenes are captured and trapped by two mirrors – one of them flat, the other a tessellating grid of tiles that ripple and distort the figures on stage.
Having seen The Moors earlier at the Seymour Centre this year, I can say that Silverman’s plays certainly bear the imprint of their maker. To quote a line from the play, Wink “feels like standing in a high wind, close to the edge of something”.
It unsettled, depressed and exhilarated me. And it made me ache with the possibilities of self I am yet too cowardly to attempt.
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