What do we look for in great theatre? What is it we see and hear in a show that makes us want to recommend it?
A story that grabs us? Acting that impresses? Is resonance important? What about risk? Theatre, for me, should always take risks. What else? Some look for innovative direction, or impressive production design; others want a soundtrack that rings in their ears even after they've left the auditorium. And above all of this, we've got to care. We've really got to care about what happens.
Well, all of these things are present in People, Places and Things, a co-production with Headlong that has just opened at the National Theatre - a stunning piece of theatre set in a drugs and alcohol rehabilitation centre that explores how on earth we can hold it together in a world that's so full of suffering and hard knocks.
Denise Gough is superb as Emma, a woman battling herself and everyone else as she tries to navigate a path through rehab and out the other side. Emma is in a bad way - her addictions are so profound that they are sabotaging her career, and they've already ruined her relationship with her family.
Only Emma has no intention of letting down her guard, of admitting that she is in desperate need of help. Instead she is determined that the walls she has built around her will stay up and that she'll push through rehab on her terms alone.
Of course that's not going to happen. But Emma is not an entirely sympathetic character. She's narcissistic and spiteful, wilfully lashing out at all who try to help her, especially her assigned Doctor (a perfectly pitched counterweight performance from Barbara Marten who is as calm as Emma is angry).
This is a world of addictions, trauma and tears. But this is too smart a play to be working just on that level. This is a play about identity, about our place in the world and our struggles to come to terms with the sheer scale of our mortality, and questions the point of a life of sobriety when even our existence has so little purpose.
And at the heart of this world is a truly extraordinary piece of acting from Denise Gough. My god, her Emma is unlikeable but my god, you feel for her. By the end you are completely on her side. That she gets you to care so much for someone who is so selfish is a testament to the vulnerability Denise brings to the role.
She is, of course, enabled by some terrific writing from Duncan Macmillan who has created such a complex and complicated woman. But there is also real bravery in his commitment to long, extended scenes. Such is the preference now for short, sharp scenes that it's quite a jolt to sit through 20 minute scenes of just Emma arguing with either her doctor or a fellow patient on her commitment to the program, or whether she is being entirely truthful with her back-story.
But it's a jolt I like. And it works because both the acting and the dialogue are interesting. It might not always be on the edge of your seat stuff but I like that. This is therapy. This is ever decreasing circles we're exploring here. This is the 'slow, slow, quick, quick, slow' dismantling of all the walls we build up around us. I was completely engrossed.
The direction comes from Headlong's Artistic Director, Jeremy Herrin, and it is both clever and bold. The long group therapy scenes and confessional sessions are shot through with injections of vivid, electric hallucinatory spirals where multiple doppelgängers take to the stage to play out the visions in Emma's head. (But are they hallucinations? Maybe they're real - fragments of Emma's experiences. The walls between reality and imagination are very porous in this production).
And this is complemented with some smart production design from Bunny Christie and Andrzej Goulding, which sees tiles from the walls breaking up, evaporating up into the air - representing not just the effect of the drugs but the flimsiness of all the metaphorical walls on display.
If I was being really picky, I would have lopped off the last five minutes. The penultimate scene is a punch to the stomach. It's awesome. Such is the visceral power of this scene I wish it would have ended there, with the horror that the people, places and things that trigger us in our lives, that cause us to panic and quake in fear, are the very people, places and things we haven't got a hope in hell of avoiding.
But this is a small gripe in what is a stunning and emotional production that hits both the heart and the head.
National Theatre, London to November 4, 2015
Image Credits: People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan, Directed by Jeremy Herrin. A co-production with Headlong. All photos by Johan Persson.
1.l-r Jacqui Dubois, Denise Gough (Emma), Sally George
2.l-r Denise Gough (Emma), Barbara Marten (Doctor)
4.l-r Jacqui Dubois, Denise Gough (Emma), Sally George