Debussy once said “music is the space between the notes”.
This is how Wastwater works. Through the vast spaces between and within three tangentially connected dialogues, it paints a picture of the world on an enormous scale.
DISCLAIMER: as a result of the above, it is impossible to discuss Wastwater in any meaningful detail without starting to eat away at some of the things that make watching it great. As such, this review is primarily intended for those who have already seen Wastwater and those who are not going to see it. Or who don't care about that sort of thing (hello, Germans).
If you like your reviews to function as a kind of consumer guide: Go see Wastwater. It is funny, clever and terrifying. The best play yet written about climate change and globalisation. Probably the best play of 2011. Five Stars. Andrew Haydon. (& if you want a reductive critical shorthand for what it's like, try: Under the Blue Sky to the tune of The City)
Now don't read any more until you've seen it or you're sure you're not going to. Or are German.
The reason it's impossible to discuss Wastwater without giving things away is that Simon Stephens uses ambiguity here like it was a set of additional characters.
The play is made up of three dialogues in three separate locations. Each between a male and a female. In each dialogue it feels like the first game we're being asked to play is “working out who the characters are”: first in the context of the scene – who they are to each other – and then, later, who they are in relation to the other characters we've seen.
In the first scene Linda Bassett and Tom Sturridge play Frieda and Harry, a loving, anxious older woman and a nervy, distracted young man. They could be teacher and pupil, parent and child, or lovers. Not knowing makes us watch the details harder. After establishing what sounds like a long shared history, Harry says, “You probably heard about it, didn't you? They must have put it in my file.” And we're unsure again – is she a particularly unkempt probation officer? It gradually emerges that Frieda has been Harry's foster-mother, but by that point the other relationships we might have imagined for them also matter.
There's an out-of-joint-ness that is crucial. Even where the scene is set seems disputed: it looks (here, in the first of Lizzie Clachan's excellent sets) like the back of an old wood and glass conservatory or greenhouse to a large family home, but it's massively overgrown, and Frieda refers to “climbing over the fence to get in here”. We learn that the house is in the village that would have been destroyed had Heathrow's third runway been constructed. From time to time the dialogue is interrupted by planes flying overhead.
The second scene exploits a different sort of tension and uncertainty. Set in a hotel room outside Heathrow, it is almost immediately obvious what Mark and Lisa (Paul Ready and Jo McInnes) are doing there. If there's a question, it's whether they'll actually manage to do what they've set out to do. There is the unanswered ancillary question of how they met and how they got to this point, but their scene isn't interested in that. Instead it's a play-off between Mark's nerves (perhaps slightly over-played by Paul Ready) and Lisa's urge toward relentless, steely-eyed self-revelation always followed with the opportunity for Mark to leave: “If you want to leave now I wouldn't mind.” “Do you feel disgusted? Do you want to go home?” “Have I scared you a bit?” Again the action is interrupted by planes.
The third and final scene is the most unsettling. It is set in a warehouse, also near to Heathrow airport, where Jonathan (Angus Wright) has agreed to meet Siân (Amanda Hale). This is the most unclear relationship yet. Siân's flirty first line “Do you like my dress?” wrong-foots us: perhaps he's a middle-aged man meeting a prostitute. The subsequent switch in her manner – hectoring, interrogatory – suggests a slightly psychotic MI5 Officer or vigilante. It's clear that Jonathan has done something wrong. Something very wrong. Something to do with children and the internet. He's frightened of her and she enjoys teasing him with her power and his fear. For a long time, it seems likely that he's involved in some kind of paedophile ring. Certainly his behaviour and her treatment of him and the hints to what's going on point toward this. Eventually, it turns out that Jonathan has paid a large amount of money to illegally adopt a child from the far east. The circumstances aren't made much clearer than that.
Because we spend so much time in the scene thinking that it is about paedophiles, child abduction and the internet, the scene/this part of the play is about that too. The fact that it turns out to be about something different doesn't erase what the scene seemed to have been about. Again, the game that the text is playing with our synapses is in full-flight. Details recur, little moments or motifs crop up again, subtly transformed or shifted. Harry's trousers that “smell of wee a bit” here turn into Jonathan “pissing himself”. Frieda's light-hearted threat to “investigate the internet” and “go through your sent messages” becomes Siân's terrifyingly full account of all Jonathan's movements that day – she reels off all his credit card, Oyster Card uses and internet transactions. Perhaps even Lisa's description of Wastwater itself – “The deepest lake in the country [England, not Britain]. It's terribly still. My dad told me the stillness was a bit of a lie. 'It looks still, Lisa, but you should see how many bodies are hidden under there'.” finds a twin in Siân's later description of drowning a foster-uncle's dog in a pond.
These little chimes and resonances constantly reminding us of the scenes which have gone before give the momentum of the whole real weight. It is through these, and the almost glancing connections between the dramatis personae – Siân is another of Frieda's foster-children, Jonathan is the teacher who once hit Mark, Harry was in the car with Mark's star pupil, Gavin Berkshire, when he died – that the play conjures the hugeness of the rest of the world. By making these encounters so brief and elliptical, by the characters and the connections between them being so apparently random and incidental, it achieves a sense of the sheer mass of people on the planet.
The text also names an awful lot of places from Heathrow outwards*. Indeed, in spite of the minutely detailed naturalistic sets, the rush of information and descriptions sometimes make the piece feel more like a radio play - one's mind is continually being put out of the room you're looking at and being asked to imagine something that one of the characters is describing. This, especially when coupled with the slight sense of not-knowing who is in the room, again adds to the sense of the overwhelming hugeness of the world outside these rooms.
There's a precision to what gets mentioned, though. This is an incredibly tightly constructed play. The scenes echo and build on one another in ways that go far beyond happy coincidence. Each depicts a man cowering slightly more away from a woman. Scene-by-scene, the men get older and the women get younger. It has been noted elsewhere that each setting gets further from nature and natural light. Each scene is about leaving, from Frieda not really wanting Harry to go, to Lisa suggesting to Mark he might want to go, to Siân absolutely not allowing Jonathan to exit. There's even the briefest of fourth scenes – that between Jonathan and his newly imported daughter Dalisay (she youngest still, he aged even by the encounter) – where neither can leave, or even move.
In each scene there's an additional discussion of choices and consequences – perhaps the overriding concern of the play – that question of how the choices we make are shaping, and destroying the world – from Harry's concern with humanity's abandonment of hunter-gathering in favour of farming: “None of the catastrophes of human history would have happened if we'd not decided to farm.” to Lisa's: “You make one decision. It stays with you. It's a bit like the consequences of it get into your bones”.
Even the references to places and things add up. This isn't just a scattergun miscellany of detail. Without putting a single scientist, politician or even polar bear in the rooms, this is the best play yet written about climate change, globalisation, about the sort of world into which we are bringing children and how we live, both on a personal and political level. It is also about information, commerce and what the world does with children. All this is achieved with an enviable lightness of touch. By the end, you feel almost wrung-out by how much you've had to imagine as well as exhilarated by the effort. Which isn't to say this is a cheering play. The last scene might function like an adrenalin shot – you spend the whole time just waiting for something horrifically violent to happen – but it's hardly an “upper” - to a world of abandoned children, foster-families, Child Protection Officers, heroin addiction and internet pornography, it adds the spectre of paedophilia and the actuality of children being sold or abducted for adoption.
Katie Mitchell's production is her “straightest” since Women of Troy. That is to say, this is played almost entirely naturalistically – i.e. without video cameras or CSI scene-change operatives, in replicas of rooms that look exactly like the rooms in which the scenes are set, played by a cast who mostly “look like the characters”. Actually, this last point isn't always strictly observed. In the printed script, Siân describes Frieda as “absolutely beautiful. She looks about my age...”, which, with the best will in the world, isn't strictly true of Linda Bassett and those lines have been removed. Of course, it is equally possible that Siân could believe it or, indeed, be lying to Jonathan when she says it, but, as far as I remember, the lines have simply been cut. Similarly, as with many productions of Blasted, the hotel room doesn't look anywhere near as pricey as it's described as being.
Within the context of this naturalism, it is Mitchell's occasional departures from it that are most interesting. In each scene, when the planes fly over, as well as causing the characters to stop speaking, the entire lighting state also changes – dims slightly, perhaps changes colour a bit. There are also at least two moments of almost dance-theatre-style non-naturalism. Both when men are left alone – in one, Mark falls backward in slow motion onto the bed, and in the other Jonathan slowly flexes a single hand. All these moments, set within the context of the naturalism, suggest an additional layer of strangeness. As if, beyond the simple, mortal fears of burning naphtha-kerosene destroying the air we breathe and strangers torturing our children, there is also a briefly glimpsed extra dimension. Or those fears momentarily take on a tangible form.
The acting itself is an interesting mix of the stylised and the totally straight. It feels like a form of condensed naturalism – hyper-naturalism, perhaps – so that all the action is slightly too sharp, the colours of the behaviour a little over-bright. It's very tic-cy in places. The first scene, in which Bassett and Sturridge chat, is marked by the way that both are constantly hugging themselves, hands picking endlessly at arms, movements mirroring one anothers'. The second scene, by contrast, sees Ready carrying on this motif of self-scratching – he almost compulsively itches the back of his head (eczema, his character explains) – where McInnes is more physically still. The third scene has Angus Wright in the most heightened state of fidgeting yet, almost unable to keep still to the point where it becomes a subject of discussion, while Amanda Hale's Siân is comparatively sanguine.
This action is fitted to the text remarkably well. It is almost unnoticeable at a conscious level, yet all the while adding grounding to the structure of the text. Re: this structure - the first two scenes both have characters hum/sing the start of Habanera from Bizet's Carmen, while the last (mis)name-checks Messiaen's “Music for the End of Time” [sic]. In common with other of Simon Stephens's plays, the music mentioned can be read as a partial hint to the mood or tone of the piece. While the opening notes of Habanera hop darkly but playfully downward like the bird that's going to steal one's heart (cf. its lyrics), the Messiaen is an altogether more fractured, shattered, modernist piece, written during the composer's imprisonment in Poland during WWII, inspired by the book of Revelation. The other crucial structural or thematic note is the quote from Dicken's Great Expectations delivered by Lisa just before the close of the hotel scene: “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”
What Wastwater does is create a complex, humane, concerned picture of the world. It illuminates the political through the personal in the best possible way. It shows us not only the state of the nation, but of the planet. It creates this picture through scenes that are individually intriguing, exciting and which, when taken together, add up to far more than the sum of their parts. It offers a rich, densely allusive tapestry of references which resonate far beyond the walls within which they are uttered. It suggests a moral universe where individual decisions have consequences and where decisions live on in our bones. It manages to stage both the unstageable enormity of the extent of the world, and the comparatively tiny lives within it – suggestively showing how tiny, fragmentary moments can have unforeseen, unimagined, unknown impacts, which thread away from them like the network of cracks on a sheet of shattered glass.
It is hard to know what more one could want from a work of art.
*Sipson, Middlesex; Surrey, Canada; New Zealand; Asia; South America; Minneapolis, America; Stansted Airport, Essex; Epping Forest; Lancaster; Wastwater, the Lake Distract; Holiday Inn, Derby; Swansea; Charles de Gaulle Airport; Cebu, Philippines; the Islington Branch of the Co-Operative Bank on the corner of Upper Street and Pentonville Road; Halfords on Liverpool Road; the Oddbins on the way to Holborn Tube; Archway Tube; Seattle; Inverness; Munich, Germany; Salzburg, Austria; Warrington, Manchester; parts of the Ivory Coast; the Itury region in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Kyrgyzstan and the back streets of the major cities of Latin America.
A great analysis of this brilliant play. Cheers.
Agree entirely that this is yet another rich and impressive play by Simon Stephens, superbly directed and wonderfully acted.
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