Review by Melinda Haunton
The experience starts before you get inside the Little stage at Southwark Playhouse. Queuing punters are poured a shot of cane spirit apiece (apparently at the cast’s insistence), and invited to drink before they spectate. Cautious sips give way to pleased smiles when it turns out not to be a throat-burning show of strength, but a meditative pleasure. I happily say the same about the play.
The Only Thing… is a Mexican production, playing in Spanish as part of the Southwark Playhouse’s CASA Festival. A 60-minute two-handed piece, it focuses on a single space occupied by the two women throughout. Based on Genet’s <i>Les Bonnes</i>, the play takes the same premise, of two servants dreaming of escaping their drudgery through murdering their mistress. But there is no repetitive fantasising here. There’s an implicit tedium, a routine of which this one day may be emblematic, but that is for the viewer to deduce.
The piece starts with the jolt that the cane spirit didn’t provide, a screaming, hectic burst of energy from both actresses (Diana Magallón and Maricarmen Ruiz, credited as writers together with the director, Damián Cervantes). The surtitles can’t hope to keep up with the hurtling women, creating edginess and uncertainty among watching Anglophones even as the audience starts to laugh at that classical comedy trope, the running servant. But the blurt of words, it becomes clear, is entirely deliberate, as we pass on to spend the hour with these women in a series of almost musically varied movements.
Screeching tension gives way in turn to comradely hilarity, painful separation in their shared space, and then an extraordinary progression from venom, to soothing, to the whispered fairy tale with which the play concludes. The successive movements are physical, some entirely wordless, but vividly observed. For a play full of nudity, it’s extraordinarily unsexual, yet entirely intimate. The fairy tale tells of a man who spies on princesses, stealing their secrets. It’s impossible not to know that the audience are doing the same.
In the first flurry, the women are hard to differentiate except by their extreme size difference, which invites simplistic comparisons based on their weight. They are living the same life, the same experience, occupying the same grim square of space; only the bodies are different. As the play progresses, though, they diverge, one anxious, obsessive, delicate; the other maternal, full of certainty, anger and comfort. Is it a shame that these characterisations match their body types in stereotype? Perhaps a little. I could have lived with less repetitive focus on eating disorders, too, and yet another instance of live on-stage cookery sent us home strongly perfumed with fried onions. But when Ruiz performs a solo dance of precision and feeling, silent, ignored by her onion-frying co-worker, then hangs up her shoes, still silent, it makes the single most resonant moment of the night for me. For all their forced proximity, these are individuals.
A sly line early on says if only the women did their piece in English, they could tour the world. Happily, they didn’t need to do so for us to have the chance to see it.
The Only Thing A Great Actress Needs Is A Great Play and the Desire to Succeed played until 21 October. The Festival continues to 28th October 2017