“How far would you go to protect your family?”
Dennis Kelly’s Orphans is a play fundamentally concerned with questions, and after a brief preview and discussion with the director (Georgia Bruce) and cast, it’s apparent that this is a production which intends to ask these questions directly, and without compromise. How far would you go to protect your family? When can violence be justified? What response is there to make when those closest to us commit unspeakable acts? Familial loyalty, collective guilt and intense violence are brought from the script with great skill and awareness in this production, by a cast which appears uniquely in tune with the emotive demands of the play.
Opening with a bold scene, Orphans immediately drags the audience into the action at hand. A married couple, Helen (Mary Higgins) and Danny (Cassian Bilton), sit eating dinner in their London flat, until Helen’s brother Liam (Calam Lynch) appears in the door, drenched in blood. The wordless reactions which follow mark the beginning of a long night for Helen and Danny; the pretences of domestic security are stripped, one by one, as the truth of the violence which has occurred begins to emerge. The stumbling, awkward dialogue of the trio, full of repetition, false starts and modern idioms, feels intensely real, and in itself removes the typical distance that we might expect between the stage and audience. As director Georgia Bruce explains, a great deal of the direction involved removing these traditional barriers: “We want to create a sense that the audience is in the room”. The modernity and realism of the dialogue plays in a large part in this, but so too does the set design; staged in the round at the accommodating Pilch, the production invites the audience in through its considered approach: “The placing of kitchen furniture – the fridge, the cupboard – will blur the edge between stage and audience.”, writes set designer Grace Linden. The feeling is of absolute engagement, and with that engagement comes complicity; we soon find our initial thoughts and reactions challenged as the play develops.
As the cast say, there is a great deal at stake here. Issues regarding urban violence, racism and Islamophobia certainly haven’t disappeared since the play’s 2009 debut, and in dealing so directly with such contentious topics it would be easy to stray into overtly moral or political territory. This was something the creative team were aware of, and were at pains to avoid, says Calam: “We can never provide answers. It’s not didactic, it’s not moralising.” Certainly, the cast is experienced in this regard, with both Calam and Cassian playing roles in the acclaimed production of Pentecost at the Playhouse last year. The central issues of Orphans are no less pressing, if more universal in scope. The distinct lack of moral prescriptivism is particularly interesting in this regard, allowing the audience to form their own judgments and also challenging them. It’s a fine line to walk, but it does seem to work; not only does it allow a deeper exploration of the subtleties of these issues through the actors’ performances, but it also involves the audience to a far greater extent than a more Brechtian approach might. It is the capabilities of the three leads which define this aspect of the play; with such an intense focus on such a small cast, this performance promises to be a true showcase of talent in student theatre.