Discomfort reigns in One For Sorrow at the Royal Court


I almost left One For Sorrow before it started. (Please rest assured I would not now be attempting to write about it if I had.) 

Right before I left for the theatre, I found out (via Twitter, naturally) that an important swing vote on the Supreme Court of the United States is going to retire, meaning that my country is even more comprehensively fucked than it was before, and will continue to be so for another generation. This threw me for a bit of a loop. I was startled, honestly, by the intensity of my reaction, and when I dragged myself all the way up to the Jerwood Upstairs at the Royal Court, I suddenly felt so sick to my stomach I thought I wouldn’t be able to stay. I just sat, scrolling through Twitter on my phone until the show began, marinating in anger and fury and fear and trying to will myself to just stop it just go enjoy some art, Bachrach, and continuing to compulsively scroll, scroll, scroll. 

And then the lights went out. They warn you before it starts, as they take your ticket, but it’s not really sufficient to prepare you for the long, claustrophobic, utterly pitch black-out that begins One For Sorrow, and recurs periodically in Guy Hoare’s absolutely brilliant lighting design. Given my already fragile emotional state, I found myself immediately approaching panic, and imagined stumbling out of the middle of the row in the pitch dark and making an absolute fool of myself. 

I don’t like the fact that outside events intruded so much on my experience of this play. It’s supposed to be a sealed and scared space, the theatre, right? And I, the critic, am supposed to come and calmly view the play on its own unique merits, focused and unbiased.

But is there any such thing, really, as being unbiased? We can’t know if we think—as one of Cordelia Lynn’s characters puts it—the right things. As her characters find, things from outside—frightening things, disarming things, not the right things—can seep into the most sealed and sacred of spaces.

A home, say: pristine and precise in Laura Hopkins’ clever design, a middle class living room in minimalist white, with a black void outside the doors and windows. Something bad has happened outside, but inside is safe. That’s why Imogen (Pearl Chanda), the kind of hyper-sensitive, sheltered progressive that only exists on Twitter or in the Daily Mail’s fantasies, invites a stranger (Irfan Shamji) stranded by the violence into her parents’ home: to keep him safe. 

Lynn’s writing creates the sense of a world reflected through a slightly warped mirror. The dialogue is frank and declamatory, peppered with repetition and few contractions. It’s not quite the way actual people speak. They’re all so articulate: every character is perfectly capable of stating their thoughts and feelings at any given moment. It can seem flat, at first—particularly if,  like me, you’re distracted thinking about how the world outside the theatre is just as absolutely horrible as the one onstage. Gradually though, the gaps in their self-awareness open up, forming a vacuum of quiet and uncertain questions that Lynn doesn’t try to explicitly fill. 

The surface at times seems a little facile: what you’re assuming will happen when a middle class white family welcomes an unknown man of colour into their home on a night of grief and chaos and stress more or less does. But Lynn’s half-crooked perspective — almost like this is not quite exactly our actual world, these are not quite exactly actual people— makes for friction in unexpected ways and places. With the help of Hopkins’ subtly and then not-so-subtly shifting set, she keeps you uncomfortably alert for the unpredictable even as relatively predictable events unfold. 

Lynn and director James Macdonald are definitely not concerned with comfort: uncomfortable blackouts; long, uncomfortable pauses; an avoidance of uncomfortable conversations that itself starts to become uncomfortable. But it’s discomfort without catharsis. Nothing ever cracks open or fully falls apart. No one ever can look inward, and so no one can break out. 

Maybe this is a kind of hopeless note to end on, or maybe that’s just the way my state of mind made it seem. Things creep into the places you go to feel safe. They slither into your living room, disrupting your thoughts at the theatre. Get up, go out and meet it. It’s coming in either way.     

What did you think of One For Sorrow? Let us know in the comments below!