The most obvious point to make about being a critic is that you get to see a lot of theatre. Some of this is theatre performed in the most classical guise possible, but a lot of it is theatre deliberately being different, shows with the distinct aim of deconstructing what we think we know about theatre and the experience of watching it. Often it is this latter type of show that really piques the interest. However, every once in a while you see a really down the line, good-old-fashioned PLAY. One without any particular conceits or attempts to break down walls, fourth or otherwise. Just a play with some solid acting on stage, no lines fluffed, a simple but effective set, and an intriguing but ultimately realistic plot. And you think, yes, this is really enjoyable, I wonder why I became so obsessed with things that set out to destroy this type of theatre.
It’s the exact feeling I got from seeing Living Quarters at the Tobacco Factory at the end of last week. This is co-produced with the accomplished Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company who this year made Romeo and Juliet, one of the most famous and over-quoted plays, seem alarmingly fresh and heartbreakingly new all over again. Like with Romeo and Juliet and their other recent production The School for Scandal, Living Quarters is a technically suave and quietly confident performance that succeeds in feeling like the classier older sister of much of what is put on stage. There is a grown-up quality to this company’s shows that ensures the performance always feels deft, a less flamboyant version of polished. It is the same quality that promises that seeing one of their shows, even if the particular text is not to your liking as was the case for me with The School for Scandal, is never truly disappointing, largely because of the quality of the acting and the design of sets and costume.
So this time the action takes place in Ireland rather than Verona, but it’s still all based around family strife and ill-timed love affairs. In common with The School for Scandal there is also an Old Man / Young Wife-who-cheats-on-him dynamic and I feel like if SATTF go for a trilogy with The Merchant’s Tale performed in time for Christmas I might have to assume that someone in the company has a suspicious complex about young brides, but I’ll let them have two in a row and write it off as a coincidence…Anyhow, describing the ins and outs of Living Quarters on paper doesn’t really do it justice as it sounds all a bit Kitchen Sink only with a mildly Six Characters in Search of an Author-style twist to the narration.
Yet Living Quarters transcends being just a play about a family in transition from mother to stepmother, or just a play about damaged masculinities. At its best moments it possesses coldly raw humanity, conjuring forth the ghosts that haunt a visitor back in their childhood town. The continual promise of impending doom flits throughout the acts until, suddenly, the whimper fucks off and everything ends with a bang.