My Thursday evening preview was a little different to normal. Instead of the usual couple of scenes with a question and answer session thrown in for good measure, I was plunged into dinner (yes, actual dinner – they made stir fry) with the Black family, the disintegrating nucleus of Sam Ward’s upcoming take on The Architect – a writhing, tension-riven mess of the standard two parents two children format.
My first thought on hearing about the plan was ‘how very meta’. My first on arrival was ‘how very awkward’. Martin, played by Cassian Bilton, swings open the door with what appears to be the louche arrogance of youth before degenerating into frankly repulsive rudeness (example: input generic comment from my Oxstu previewing comrade, then awkward silence, cue deadpan comment ‘great guests’ from Martin, more awkward silence). Lily Erskine’s Dorothy plays the victim with aplomb, conspicuously helping for dinner – is she pitiable or sanctimonious or both? – before storming out to “anywhere” in revealing clothing to do “god knows what.” Dom Applewhite as Leo was a greying, detached, vacant attempt at a father figure, constantly apologizing for his wayward son’s behavior, whilst Helena Wilson’s Paulina is a potent, shuddering husk of embarrassed tension.
We watched as they weaved amongst one another, with all the snide cattiness and brittle conversations that grate in families, ripping and tearing at the forced conventionality of the dinner format. Dynamics are pithy, charged, brutal. Each character’s story is at one moment made painfully clear and, at the next, swept into the abyss of all-consuming tension. On more than one occasion I felt the urge to step in and try to rescue the flailing parents or somehow alleviate some of the charged awkwardness, with it almost impossible to recall that the reviewer/guest was simply another role.
And I suspect that this will be what will make The Architect a very, very good production. The innovative marketing technique of a fourth-wall shattering preview was, of course, quirky, but it was also apt, a means of negating the privileged viewer position that will hopefully be furthered in the play’s production. In a work about a failing architect, family and vision, to bring the audience into the space drives home the tension and searing pain in a way that would otherwise be lost in the gap between stage and audience. Saatchi & Saatchi should give whoever came up with that idea a job.
More generally, the play should be an interesting choice. Created as a comment on “the interstices of city life,” it revolves around Applewhite’s Leo, once a highly successful architect who designed a high-concept housing estate shaped like Stonehenge that won praise from everyone except his inhabitants, but now, as they are petition for it to be knocked down and rebuilt, Leo’s own family life degenerates into a pervasive defeated idealism. The work rotates on the concept of space, on what Greig calls “the places which once harboured the possibilities of utopia but were now dark and fearful places” – an interesting concept to be figured in the recesses of the Keble O’Reilly in 7th Week.