As we take our seats for this finely-wrought two-hander, the stage is shrouded in darkness - and there’s a big surprise in store for us once the lights come on. The entire back wall is covered with a stunning abstract mural; in front of it stands a woman, freeze-framed in open-mouthed horror, like a reveal from a home-makeover show gone terribly wrong. The problem, we soon learn, isn’t just what’s appeared on on the walls of her living room, but also the man who’s responsible. The paint job's been done by a struggling artist called Michael - who lived with Ana in this very flat, before they fought and broke up six months ago.
There are many mysteries to this intriguing set-up, not least why Ana would invite her estranged ex to decorate her flat while she was out of town. But Maggie Diaz Bofill’s intricate script, first performed in New York a few years ago, masterfully unravels the complex questions it poses - in the process exploring themes of obsession, forgiveness, and mutual dependency. The hour-long debate stays continually surprising, with striking shifts of tone delineating the phases of the quarrel. The tactics range from playground name-calling to deeply mature introspection; throughout it all, paint and painting form a well-spun unifying metaphor.
It’s Michael, played by Lewes Roberts, who hogs the attention at first. Roberts makes Michael a truly charismatic figure: cocksure and presumptuous, but thrillingly so, the kind of man whose excesses are always forgiven. Yet he harbours pain, and Roberts successfully carries us along as he swings to vulnerability, then to triumph, then to desperate capitulation. For a while you’re not sure if he’s selfish or deserving, though your opinion may crystallise as more of his past is revealed.
But this is really Ana’s story; and as Ana begins to assert herself, Elise Arnold’s powerful portrayal begins to define our perception. Arnold deftly captures the conflicting emotions of a woman who’s still healing - whose strength and independence are tempered by an unreasoning craving, directed at a man she still loves. She still lusts, as well: this is a sometimes-carnal script, though the frankness is always there for a reason. For me, the most disturbing moment comes after the one true sex scene, when Arnold’s and Roberts’ contrasting reactions highlight the difference between momentary agreement and true consent.
The psychological interplay between the two characters is taut and tense. They know each other too well - can see into each other’s hearts and minds - and there’s cruelty in the way they call out each other’s deepest hopes and needs. There is sympathy and tenderness between them, delicately evoked by the two actors, but there is anger and bitterness too. It’s far from obvious what ending we should hope for; while they clearly both burn to be back together, it’s equally clear that this reunion has stoked a dangerous mutual dependency.
For that subtlety and ambiguity, the credit belongs to playwright Bofill. But for the performance itself, CryHavoc Theatre Company deserve all the praise I can bestow: each touch, flinch, and silent expression is every bit as eloquent as Bofill’s words. Director Claudine Sinnet has truly brought the best out of two talented performers, while set designer Phil Poole provides the arresting visual backdrop that’s so central to the plot and theme. It's a small-scale production, but Drawn and Quartered is as credible and thought-provoking as any play I’ve seen… and it ends on a note of melancholy wisdom, a reminder that sometimes there’s no short-cut to redemption.