Casual sex between human beings is murky business. The intertwining of flesh on flesh is never the uncomplicated act the animal kingdom enjoys, rather it’s a mash up of flirtation, power plays and fleeting satisfaction that sometimes comes with a hefty price. In Anna Ziegler’s 2017 two-character play, Actually, sex is not just a simple act of coitus between two Princeton students, but a political football tossed back and forth in describing whether the sex they shared was consensual or an act of rape.
The play unfolds as a series of monologues. Amber (Yasmin Paige) and Thomas (Simon Manyonda) meet at a fraternity party, each displaying their own style of sexual prowess. Thomas, an African-American student from an impoverished background, is confident in his good looks and his ability to attract women. Amber, a white student from a wealthy family, hints that she is available for sex, but her nervous, rapid-fire speech belies her confusion about her own desirability. Amber invites Tom to play ‘Two Truths and a Lie’, a game that sets up the premise of the play. Although, throughout their game playing, the sense is that each character is always telling the truth, but according to how they see it.
After imbibing copious amounts of alcohol Thomas invites Amber to spend the night in his room at the university dormitory where they have sex in the bottom bunk of a two-bunk bed. Thomas’ roommate, asleep in the top bunk, is disturbed by the couple’s noisemaking during the night. Upon awakening the next morning, Thomas is relieved to see there is a used condom on the floor, and thinks he’s had a chaotic but fairly pleasant sexual encounter, while Amber thinks she’s been raped.
When Amber reports the rape to a campus official, the college must act under the federal law known as Title IX, which requires universities to protect students from sexual violence.
Amber and Thomas each appear at a college hearing and offer testimony that will be judged according to a standard known as ‘Preponderance of the Evidence’. It is a standard used in a non-criminal law case which enables a panel of authorities to decide in favour of the plaintiff or the defendant, based on which side presents the more convincing account of events that is likely to be true.
One of the beautiful aspects of Actually is that it is so visually spare. There is no set to speak of, the actors stand throughout, they do not look at one other, rather it is the audience they address and the audience who must decide whether a rape took place. It is an extremely rigorous feat of acting with each actor scoring points, albeit with different tactics.
Although, the question of rape is near impossible to determine through each version of events, it is Thomas’ account which holds our attention: he knows where he’s been, he’s moving forward and, as a young African American male, he’s aware of the pitfalls that lie before him. Simon Manyonda embodies Thomas’ determination with such conviction that, for much of the time, I forgot I was watching an actor.
By comparison, Yasmin Paige’s Amber is written as a maelstrom of confusion, her account of events so scattered that often I wished she would slow down so I could feel more connected to her character. But this is not to say that Paige’s interpretation of Amber is any less powerful, only that the character might have benefitted from a quiet moment of reflection at some point in the play.
Ultimately, Actually, is an extraordinary piece of theatre. The brilliance in Ziegler’s writing is in its ability to explore the issue of each character’s history, mixed with gender politics, social class and race to indicate the unconscious desires that influenced their actions on the night. After listening to 90 minutes of testimony, the audience must come to its own conclusion. Did a rape take place? Or was it a drunken evening that ended in a sloppy sex act?
Review by Loretta Monaco
One night. Two people. Three truths.
Amber and Tom hook up at a party at their elite American university and spend the night together. They agree on the drinking, they agree on the attraction, but what actually happened between them? Through conflicting accounts of a college hook up, Actually boldly delves into the messiest of grey areas and the intersectional complexities of race, religion and gender, controversially picking at our individual biases and internalised prejudices in ‘he said, she said’ cases of sexual consent.
This is Anna Ziegler’s first play in London since Photograph 51, which starred Nicole Kidman, and won Best New Play and Best Actress at the WhatsOnStage Awards; and the Evening Standard award for Best Actress. Anna’s other plays include The Last Match and Boy.
@announceprods | #actuallyplay
Running Time: 90 minutes | Suitable for ages 16+
Directed by Oscar Toeman Written by Anna Ziegler
Produced by Announcement Productions
Cast Simon Manyonda and Yasmin Paige
Trafalgar Studios, London
14 Whitehall, Westminster, London SW1A 2DY
Booking to 31st August 2019