Mothertongue is a multi-ethnic professional counselling service who are involved with therapy and counselling among multilingual groups, including couples who frequently do not share each other’s language. The Session is a dramatisation of some of the problems which arise in these relationships and looks at both the strengths and weaknesses of communication within them.
It all sounds a bit well-meaning when one reads the programme, but what one sees is a touching and painfully honest play about communication which compresses a complex set of problems into spare, simple but powerful language. The actors tell their story alternately, speaking mostly to the audience, which makes the gap between them more vivid.
The couple, Lena and Robert, at first meet and communicate simply by being themselves, having a kind of private language which puts them together in their own world beyond language. ‘I loved his beautiful mouth’ she says. There are some wonderful scenes here: the opening meeting when it is even difficult to read each other’s gestures, and a delightful and touching scene where Lena engages with English humour, telling a joke which is so English (‘what do you call a rifle with three barrels? A trifle’) that her attempts to tell it actually reveal how feeble it is. The following moment, when she tried to apply the joke to a Polish cake was another illustration of the almost surreal difference that can exist between cultures.
The love that came from pure feeling at the beginning of the marriage runs into serious difficulties as their life together continues, and social and personal problems arise. Lena learns English while Robert refuses, in his English way, to learn Polish, or in fact, anything about Poland as a culture. The English language blocks Lena off from a part of herself, and instead of enriching her spirit, it isolates her from her background without connecting her fully to her new environment. ‘I used to know a lot of jokes’ she says, ‘I was alive.’ The shared language actually separates them. ‘The loss of country is a constant pain in my heart. In my blood there is another land,’ Lena says. She, who knows the exact point on the map where her parents and grandparents were born, who has a precise knowledge of her own lost roots, cannot understand Robert, who isn’t even sure where his parents were born. She carries her culture within herself, while he doesn’t need to and so doesn’t value it.
Things come to a crisis of course, when they have a child and the child’s language becomes a source of dispute as Lena tries to share her language and background with her English son. As the conflict between husband and wife over the child’s identity escalated, the either/or of the situation was heartbreaking. When the child died, there seemed to be no bond left between them and as Lena said ‘What are we here for? We cannot talk anymore.’ If the conclusion felt a bit ambiguous, it also felt truthful.
The acting is wonderful, especially Izabella Urbanowicz as Lena: pale, beautiful, serious with a generosity of spirit that made her a pleasure to watch at every moment and a smile at moments of joy that involuntarily drew smiles in response. She has a charismatic presence which means that she dominates the play. One cannot take one’s eyes off her. She was well partnered by Tom Shepherd as her loving but narrow-minded English husband. This play is only an hour long, but there is a full length amount of emotional power packed into it.
Review by Kate Beswick
‘One minute I’m in The Elk watching the footie the next minute I’m at the beach with a Polish supermodel. Fucking come on.’
Lena meets Robbie. Girl meets Boy. Head over heels, eyes only for each other. They don’t speak the same language, but they both know the language of love and surely that’s enough for a while – until the unspeakable happens and the truth comes spewing out. As their marriage hurtles towards oblivion Lena and Robbie desperately attempt to find a common language and save their shared history.
The Session is written by Andrew Muir (Gold Dust, Soho Theatre) and directed by Debbie Hannan (Who Cares, Royal Court), starring Tom Shepherd (Superior Donuts, Southwark Playhouse) and Izabella Urbanowicz (Truth and Reconciliation, Royal Court).
Mothertongue (a charity providing professional services across cultural divides) and Metal Rabbit Productions (Radiant Vermin, Soho Theatre) present this heartfelt new play about how couples communicate, taking in 12 years of a relationship based on misunderstanding and crossed wires.
Running Time: 75 minutes
Age Recommendation: 14+
This production is supported by Arts Council England, Polish Cultural Institute in London and the Unity Theatre Trust.
21 Dean St, London W1D 3NE
Booking to Saturday 28th November 2015