Why is the title of debbie tucker green’s play just love’s definition sans the word? Well, Green, who I capitalise because I demand a certain discipline with language, like the patriarchal pig I am, doesn’t like capital letters. Calling the play “Love” would mean the horror of upper case, a masculine take on a universal. Why are we talking about gendered language? Because it’s the play’s structuring theme; conversations between men and women in which three couples, forming a lineage of relationship failure, fall victim to cyclical forms of misunderstanding – men vying for status and full-spectrum dominance over their circumstances; women complaining they’re not listened to, never apologised to, not understood. And this pattern, though repeated in one couple after the other, across a generation, isn’t a strict binary. The arguments overlap and intersect, the generations mirror one another. To underline the point, the actors draw overlapping circles and mirrored symbols on the three walls of a peninsular platform.
It’s a frustrating evening, not least because one’s forced to sit on one of several hard swivel stools lining the studio’s corridor. You’re forced to choose a side, take a position, with the actors talking across the audience from opposing walls. Only Anthony Head, it seems, had the optimal all-seeing view on press night, so let’s call that sweet spot the Head space.
Assuming you only plan to pay once, do you need to see both sides of each argument? Controlling the audience this way compels them to focalise on a single character’s perspective, or the lyrical dialogue behind them with its verse-like patter and elisions, or indeed the chalked walls, that offer that symbolic representation of the play’s design. This alienation complements the play’s level of abstraction. As the title suggests, green’s more concerned with how love manifests itself and is defined in situ, rather than reducing it to a thought terminating cliché or concept fart.
One has to approach the piece like the long three stanza poem it is. The meaning’s embedded in dense, conspicuously compressed language that’s occasionally dotted with the odd undisciplined line of realist dialogue, to vouchsafe its sponsorship from the world outside. It looks better on the page than it does when spoken; it’s showboating; but it can also be poignant, harrowing and truthful, when it forgets to dazzle the audience with linguistic pyrotechnics. Consequently, we intuit the themes of loss, breakdown and legacy without having the time or information to linger on the details. You’re forced to work for something like melodrama, repackaged as a thing of substance.
The performances are uniformly excellent, not least from Gershwyn Eustache Jnr and Lashana Lynch whose troubled family life is the spur for what follows, but plays like a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun) aggressively hold you at arm’s length, forcing you to reflect, while removed, on how complete a work you’re witness to. The conclusion here is that we’re simply not given the orientation or the depth of characterisation required to gain anything other than a melancholy impression. That’s the definition of deficient.