Blackbird is a controversial play, that exposes a cocktail of emotions – triggered when Una confronts the much older Ray, 15 years after he abandoned her at the age of 12 in a seaside hotel room. As the story unfolds, we hear about the aftermath of this illicit liaison. Ray was imprisoned for having sex with a minor; Una had to remain in the community where they both lived, facing the everyday disapproval of friends, their families and neighbours. The bad news spread like a forest fire, however much her parents tried to protect her.
Throughout their charged encounter, Una is filled with questions. She is angry, humiliated, lonely, confused and entranced in turn. Ray may have served his sentence, but has he really understood how it feels to be sexually abused as a child, and the legacy most victims carry into adulthood? He has felt the full force of condemnation from society, but was there opportunity for rehabilitation? Did the authorities believe he could reform? Do we believe it?
And Una’s character, for me, is even more complex and interesting, stealing the show and leaving me deeply uncomfortable. Her 12-year-old self was still drawing her back, pushing her to transact with Ray as she had in the past. At one point she asks Ray: “Why did you leave me in the hotel?” and there is a sense that this is the question that has dominated her life. I expected guilt, shame and self-blame, misplaced emotions which survivors commonly battle – I am not sure we witnessed these.
The play lost some pace in the second half, though this does at least offer a little respite before an eruption of even deeper, more highly charged emotion. Dialogue and confrontation move on from that lull inexorably towards a chilling conclusion.
Lucy Laing and Martin Hobbs offer us a confident and compelling performance, with Annabelle Hollingdale in support. There is very little set to speak of, but the sparse backdrop, scant props and small stage only heighten the intensity – and at times the irony – of this drama.
I would recommend Blackbird as a thought-provoking piece of theatre, well-executed and raising many questions. From a feminist perspective, it’s disconcerting, but David Harrower’s play is well worth seeing – because it challenges stereotypes, and explores the difficulty of unravelling complex, heartfelt emotion. There is a reason why people say the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference.