Coming to the Michael Pilch Studio in 1st week Trinity, Orphans looks to be a harrowing exploration of the division between familial and societal duty.
Helen and Danny are ordinary, functioning dutiful citizens – all until Helen’s brother, Liam, comes in bloodied and makes them change their attitudes and outlooks. What becomes clear from the outset is his inability to clarify his own story of how he comes to be bloodied – whether it is an accident or not becomes a key piece of the opening, providing the vaguely unsettling mixture of comedy and deep, macabre severity which comes to be the play’s calling card. The question of his guilt or innocence provides much of the tension of the play’s opening; yet altogether more unsettling questions come to the fore later on.
The style of the play is as one would expect from The Experimental Theatre Club. In the original script as written by Dennis Kelly, often the lines do not end with punctuation – but instead with the interjection of another character. The resultant realism drives the conversations, which in turn drives the plot. The play also has no real exposition, relying on it being revealed in off-hand allusions in the conversations. Thus when Liam comes in bloodied, it comes as a jarring image, disturbing the apparent peace of the family dinner setting. However, the portraits of these characters get filled in as the play progresses, making us question the intrinsic moral worth of each of them; with the possibility of being pushed from middle class civility into madness and violence never that far away.
The tension is something Kelly has spoken about explicitly in relation to this play. Ever since its debut on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009, it has shocked and provoked audiences for it and what happens at its resolution. The questions asked of ‘Broken Britain’ by the play attack the notion of a united, integrated country that David Cameron was contemporaneously trying to build with the ‘Big Society’. Kelly says this tension is necessary for him – ‘I always want my plays to have tension; whether the audience hates it or loves it is up to them, but I never want them to be bored.’ He has achieved his aims – if you go and see it; you won’t be.