Imagine theatre without Aristotle. Let’s get rid of the constraints that come with time, place and action having to be consistent throughout. Let’s get rid of the convention that characters are of high social standing in tragedy or of low social standing in comedy – in fact, why even bother with having a person as the protagonist at all? And while we’re at it, let’s also scrap the rule of one actor playing one character. I don’t even need to say that male characters, let alone actors, have no place in this theatre. But hold on with your judgment for a moment.
Emily Albery’s production in the Burton Taylor in Week 4 offered some material for thought on this. String of Pearls by Michele Lowe is the story of a necklace. The metaphor in the title is therefore just as catchy as it is pervasive in a 90 minutes play. Originally a present to Beth from her husband, the necklace presents the missing piece in her granddaughter Amy’s wedding. The necklace, as we find out, has in fact made a journey all over America and even to Paris. Whoever get hold of it falls into some trouble and passes it on – sometimes unwillingly and often unknowingly – to another woman, who is to continue the story.
The necklace is the only bit of continuity, a lifeline both for the plot and for the audience. Superficially unrelated monologues are connected only by the reoccurrence of the necklace in another owner’s hands. But ‘owning’ is already a difficult word here, because for the audience the necklace really takes on a life of its own. With a constant deliberate mystery around the women interacting with it, the necklace becomes the lifeline for the audience’s attention. We empathise with it when the pearls are scattered over a hotel room, or when the necklace is cast in the Hudson River. We even feel a bit of catharsis when it is finally united with Beth.
With the necklace’s dominance also comes a new view on the other characters. The small but very good cast of Helene Bonnici, Emma Buchy-Dury, Alice Moore and Alex Worrell handled a total of 27 characters between them. Under the directing of Caitlin Jauncey, they played nicely with the cold and sometimes even disturbing distance that the exclusive use of monologues – occasionally two happening at the same time – created between the women. Scarcity in props and the absence of a background setting was matched by predominantly plain black costumes.
Of course, all this was necessitated by the immense speed with which the events moved from one place and time to the next. One actress immersing herself and the audience into one character and her story, as the other actresses are sitting on stage, arranging hair and props for the next scene, made the theatrical point of the production clearly: We, the audience, are doing the job of putting it all together. We, the audience, have to connect the scenes as if we are connecting pearls, one at a time, all seemingly the same and hopefully coming together at the end. In giving us these individual pearls, Lowe’s style, albeit dominated by narrative, is refreshingly colloquial but not forced. While she largely abstains from derogatory terms or obscenities these achieve some great effects and laughs when comedy is intended.
Constantly switching between the women’s mundane and quite archetypal lives and the deeper connection of the necklace between them, the viewer is occasionally taken aback by a wonderful little scene. But only rarely did the play escape its own bigger picture to create genuine drama within a particular monologue itself, often with the aid of very sensitively chosen music. The highlight in this must be the final story of Kyle, a woman looking after her mother, who is suffering form Alzheimer. The mother’s failure to recognize Kyle as her daughter, rather than the carer, provided for a powerful inter-character relation that was mimetic of the whole play, because the recognition is eventually achieved. Just as it took a long time for the mother to put the events together in her head, the audience’s search for how ‘it all hangs together’ comes to an end as Kyle sells the necklace to Beth’s new lover to be come a present for her once again.
Although it may not have answered it conclusively and in its favour, this production has put to us the question whether a play really needs the strong dynamics individual characters can develop over an evening, or the strong grip of a unified action, which the viewer can’t escape. Whatever our judgment on modern minimalist theatre and no matter how highly we honour our Aristotle, we have to see that it’s not impossible to make a play hang together without the glue of convention.