Flawless is a word that should never be used in the context of theatre, and therefore I shall refrain from doing so. ‘The Country’ is, however, a play with which it is very hard to pick fault. The production has an elegance of craftsmanship which rarely graces the New Theatre stage. It is ambitious, harrowing and endlessly engaging.
The piece confronts the audience with the troubles of the three characters, in a compelling series of conflicts. At its core this is a play about a man whose self caused implosion drags in its wake the two women who he claims to love. It documents the power struggles and emotional trials of the three characters. Set to Ed Denham’s haunting melodies, it is a tragedy of abuse in which all are incriminated: Richard (Ben Cave), the protagonist whose being has been hollowed by the unbridled gratification of his lusts, Corinne (Lizzie Bourne) his neglected wife, and Rebecca (Megan Salter) his young mistress, whose accident before the opening of the play leads to the unravelling of their entanglement.
The three parts are played with outstanding delicacy, in particular by Lizzie Bourne, who enacts the cuckolded housewife. Her stares and tears cry out to the audience for emotion and repulsion, for sympathy and empathy. The highlight of the piece is the climax of the opening half. Rebecca (Salter), who until this point has been nonchalant to the point of contempt, reveals, in an emotional barrage, the cause and nature of her relationship with the protagonist; Richard (Cave). There are rare moments in theatre when one is forced to look away for fear of being overwhelmed. This is one of those. Cave is a more than adequate villain, he captures the fear and weakness of Richard, forming a canvas onto which Bourne and Salter stroke lines of heart-wrenching brilliance.
If there could be any criticism it would be that at moments the scenes become static, or dragged too far into the awkward, at which point it becomes hard for the actors to tease out the emotion in their lines. The cyclical nature of the script, though clever and incisive also means that the character progression needs to be judged perfectly. This was almost the case, unfortunately, though only rarely, some of the symmetry felt a little forced.
This is not a play with many moments of lightness, however, part of the beauty of the production is that Catlin has managed to find, particularly in Richard, lines of dark humour. Many of his retorts in particular have, when he plays them, an aggressive bluntness, to which one must either choose to laugh or cry.
Becky Catlin and James Herbert have created a veritable forest which encroaches upon the kitchen where this play is set. It is claustrophobic, dark and menacing, a feeling added to by the traverse staging. The countryside becomes, not an idyllic place of peace but, an isolating, suffocating character in its own right. The angled window frames and live trees surrounding the stage enclose the audience, trapping one in a surreal world of perpetual anguish.
This being said, I left the theatre feeling satisfied, with little desire to do anything but talk about this play, and yet unable to find words in which to frame my thoughts. Stunned would not be an overstatement. This is a play that you most certainly should not miss.