at the Traverse Theatre, Friday 17th August 2012
It feels appropriate to begin a review of Simon Stephens’ Morning at the end, with Stephanie’s announcement that “Everybody wants a message and there is none… There is no hope”. In typical Stephens style, the previous hour has been a harrowing and dark experience, but even though his protagonist makes this terrifying statement, it is followed by her brother coming to the stage and putting on clothes for his mother’s funeral. It’s impossible not to see this as a sign of hope, but to do so is to reject what has just been said. Once again, Stephens gets inside our mind and twists it out of shape.
The plot pivots around Stephanie, whose best friend Cat is leaving for university whilst her mother is dying. Two of the most important people in her life are leaving and she has to grow up. For her, however, this manifests itself as the murder of her boyfriend, Stephen. As soon as she realises she has responsibility and has to take control, this is the only way out, the only thing which seems sensible. As he frequently does, Stephens is demonstrating the violence inherent in our society. It is no wonder mindless killings happen when there is little hope.
As happens often in coming-of-age pieces, there is much discussion of a hatred of a home town. Cat can’t wait to go to university because where she lives is “horrifying”. Having outgrown it, she now needs to move on. But while her response is conventional, Stephanie has a more complex view of their home, believing it to be “beautiful” but “noisy”. More intriguing, however, she contemplates that all the gardens are the same “so nobody gets jealous”. This naïve understanding about suburbia is beautifully placed in the moments following the murder of Stephen; she is now seeing the world anew.
Sean Holmes’ production takes the ideas in Stephens’ text and puts them into images. Death is hidden away within a small greenhouse while Michael Czepiel sits on stage, creating live the sounds which surround these young people. Actors move across the stage in a way which mirrors their thoughts and feelings rather than real life, and a fridge acts as both doorway and refuge. Charles Balfour’s bright, white, neon lights are placed at various points on the stage, and flicker on and off at sudden moments of realisation or confusion. The mood created by this design is one of exposure, as everything these teens do is scrutinised by us, the audience, and the world at large.
The most striking visual image is of a burning paper boat in a tank of water. The calm after the storm.
All the performers deliver their lines in what has become trademark Stephens style: biting honesty with a hint of self-awareness. We can see the actors playing the parts, but that doesn’t make these characters any less believable. Ted Reilley’s Stephen is awkward and scarily obsessive about his girlfriend; there is something intense in his performance which isn’t in the text. Joana Nastari’s Cat and Scarlet Billham’s Stephanie are two sides of the same coin (highlighted by their black and white clothes). Nastari is confident but unaware, and Billham more shy but extraordinarily plugged in. When she addresses us, she does so with relish.
Which takes us back to the final speech. The speech in the playtext is longer than the one presented on stage, and includes a lot of talk about waste. It’s a superlative piece of writing, and says a lot about our inert society, but Holmes was sensible to cut this down, making the monologue more tragic than angry, fitting in more happily with Stephanie’s persona. Within the last quarter of the play, Stephens forces us to look at the play afresh every five minutes. First, Stephanie writes “The philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it”. Her last speech then warns us that “there is no hope”, making the previous statement void. Finally, the appearance of a young man preparing for his mother’s funeral offers that glimmer of optimism Stephens told us there wouldn’t be. Perhaps we’re stupid to fall for the very technique he chastises, but it’s impossible not to after experiencing the rest of the play. Morning is a piece which demonstrates the unsalvageable issues with the modern world, but it is that final kernel of hope which lingers.