It’s easy to see why Lot Vekemans’ Poison won the prestigious Taalunie Toneelschrijfprijs award in 2010, denoting its place as ‘best Dutch play’ that year. In this translation by Rina Vergano – the version that was a hit in New York in 2016 – Poison presents us with a man and a woman (‘he’ and ‘she’), meeting for the first time in 9 years, since he walked out on her on New Years Eve, never to return.
The topic is brutal, the setting is bizarre: a rather non-descript chapel-come-waiting-room in a cemetery. There is a water cooler and a coffee machine – it’s that kind of place. Yet in this impersonal setting, ‘he’ and ‘she’ are about to make some discoveries that are long overdue, revisiting the time when they were married, and arguing about how and why it all ended – and whose fault it was.
It quickly becomes clear that the couple lost their little boy (we don’t find out how until later), which led to an unfortunate – if predictable – demise in their own relationship, each pitting their grief against one another and finding it difficult to move on. Now ‘he’ lives in Normandy, and is relatively happy in his new life. ‘She’, meanwhile, finds it impossible to move on, to forget, and find the peace that she so desperately yearns for, but feels she does not deserve.
It’s a very tricky scenario, to say the least, and the writing beautifully finds the interplay between two strangers who know each other very well. The shared history between these individuals comes out in the strangest moments – a laugh; knowing how to wind someone up; and in the remembering of tiny details, once lost. It’s almost poetic, this dance our characters play as they tiptoe and stomp around one other, all the time waiting for someone to come for the ‘meeting’ they’ve been summoned for. There is poison in the water, the letter said – their son’s body may need to be moved. A horrific ordeal for any parent to endure; yet as no-one arrives for this ‘meeting’, one begins to wonder if it was ever intended to take place, and what is really going on. It’s deliciously unnerving, leaving the audience guessing as to what might happen next, and who might throw the next metaphorical punch.
Artistic Director Paul Miller directs with sensitivity and simplicity. The text is so considered, both subtle and bracing, and the actors are so detailed in their delivery, that there is no requirement to lay anything on top. Clare Price as ‘her’ is sublime, utterly convincing in her nervousness and barbed bitterness. Zubin Varla’s ‘him’ is no less engaging, following the text to the letter, even when it feels somewhat stilted and unnatural. There are breathers in the action where appropriate – where the naturalism is broken and a strange light comes to shine on ‘her’ – giving the audience space from the pain and anguish displayed. Perhaps this light is emblematic of hope? One sincerely hopes so.
Difficult, pain-ridden, yet in parts amusing, Poison’s triumph is rooted in the writing – and in Paul Miller’s version, this writing really is given the opportunity to shine.
Review by Amy Stow
Claire Price (The Winter’s Tale, The Daughter in Law, Company at Sheffield Crucible, Home Fires on TV) and Zubin Varla (A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe; Dara, War Horse, The Enchantment at the National Theatre) play a couple separated for seven years following the tragic death of their child. They are reunited for a difficult meeting in an extraordinary play that asks a simple question: is it ever possible to move on?
An Orange Tree Theatre production
BY LOT VEKEMANS
ENGLISH TRANSLATION BY RINA VERGANO
Director Paul Miller
Designer Simon Daw
Lighting Designer Mark Doubleday
Sound Designer and Composer George Dennis
Costume Supervisor Clio Alphas
Casting Rebecca Murphy
Paul Miller directs Claire Price and Zubin Varla in the UK premiere of Poison by Dutch writer Lot Vekemans following huge European success and a critically acclaimed New York run.
Thu 2 November – Sat 2 December 2017