Written for CultureWars.org.uk
Without wishing to give too much away, Anthony Neilson’s new play for the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court is essentially a fantasia on Maxine Carr being abducted by Josef Fritzl - the ‘Austrian basement guy’. It’s a reductive description, but it gives the bare bones. The mode of operation here is pretty much that of the ghost train. The forbidding black set behind a haze of gauze, under a lowered false black ceiling of Miriam Buether's design all serve to ratchet up an atmosphere of claustrophobia. The audience is frequently plunged into complete darkness. We hear screams and the echoey sounds of children playing in a playground. We hear sinister voices. A single bulb suddenly snaps on. A shadowy figure lies on the floor. You get the picture.
The narrative is anything but linear. And it is while it is at its most confused that it is most frightening. While there is a sense that anything could happen, the piece builds real tension. It is the sense of the unknown, the fear of what could be lurking in the darkness, that really works. For better or for worse, Neilson (who also directs) doesn’t choose to keep within this shadowy, David Lynch world. Instead, while different characters do seem to swap bodies – it is interesting that here this doesn’t feel like mere meta-theatrical mucking about, but something far more pointed and sinister – scenes resolve themselves into fragments of linear sense. A creepy scene of a couple arguing at cross-purposes is replayed as something suggesting the conversation between Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr following the deaths of Holly and Jessica.
There is much speculative dialogue around the subject of women’s relationships to their abusers, particularly those within their own family. It's pretty heavy going, made no easier by the fact it is conducted in near-blackness, and with the intention of making the audience jump – an old trick from The Exorcist is cleverly deployed at one moment, while the penultimate scene owes a great debt to the Blair Witch Project.
Using a framework of horror films to explore the subject of child abuse and murder sounds pretty much as misjudged as it is possible to get. And that argument carries a lot of water. On the other hand, Neilson could cannily defend himself by first arguing that theatre shouldn’t shy away from difficult subject matter (although whether theatre should have “subject matter” per se remains a moot point). And at the same time, theatre shouldn’t shy away from theatricality.
What is interesting is how Relocated doesn’t make explicit how it expects to be read. Too ambiguous to be social realist *message* theatre, but too anchored in the real world and comments upon it to be pure abstraction, part of what makes the piece so unsettling is one’s uncertainty about what it’s trying to do. The horror elements seem to have the effect of making one cling to anything recognisable, no matter how horrific. Analogous situations, strategies of understanding, become vital as a way of blocking out fear of what might be lurking in the dark. The banality of evil becomes a weapon against the fear of fear itself.
This could be pure theatre located right at the heart of something horribly real. It could be a deplorably cheap co-opting of personal tragedy for theatrical gain. Or, elsewhere, some of the speculative dialogue around questions of loyalty, duty and even love within abusive relationships, suggest a more serious enquiry. Without doubt this is a remarkably effective piece of theatre. It is up to individual audience members to determine what that effect is.