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The Confessions a new play by Alexander Zeldin

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, Salman Rushdie weighed in on the #ownvoices debate in the arts, declaring that he didn’t believe that only women should be allowed to write about women, or straight people to write about straight people. If such an interdiction is really being proposed by anyone (and I’ve never heard a soul even whisper that queer writers shouldn’t depict straight lives), nobody has informed the National Theatre. They are proudly staging The Confessions, a play about one woman’s life, written by a man. In mitigation, this is presented as a biographical work, tracking the life of playwright Alexander Zeldin’s mother from a situation of banal (if comfortable) Australian living, to her escape via continental Europe to London.

The Confessions: Lilit Lesser, Yasser Zadeh, Pamela Rabe, Jerry Killick, Eryn Jean Norvill, Joe Bannister. Photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage.
The Confessions: Lilit Lesser, Yasser Zadeh, Pamela Rabe, Jerry Killick, Eryn Jean Norvill, Joe Bannister. Photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage.

Alice, played at different ages by Amelda Brown and Eryn Jean Norvill, is put through the wringer, but this is no misery porn tale à la A Little Life, and Alice is not a passive victim of unfair circumstances. As she makes the active decision to escape her parochial scene, the set crumbles and is torn apart. Zeldin and Set Designer Marg Howell’s bold choices to break not just the fourth wall but also walls one to three, which are supposed to contain the action, thrill and unnerve me.

From its cold open, spoken in front of the curtain with the house lights up, we should know that this production will be bold enough to challenge expectations, even those it works hard earlier on to reinforce. I question in the latter part of what is a short play (a breezy one-hour-fifty straight through) whether we really need so much of Alice’s dreary life in the first third, even if to show us the why of her escape.

I become invested in some of the early core characters – husband Graham, dopey friend Pat – such that even if I don’t like them, I’m interested in their experiences a little more than the rapidly disposable characters she meets on her travels. Zeldin observes correctly that in real life friends and lovers hop in and out of our orbit, but dramatic momentum requires our interest to be earned and paid off.

Pacing, of course, is rather more subjective than critics would like to admit. Despite such quibbles I find myself moved by a steady directional hand that sees moments teetering in the balance, so finely calibrated that I have no choice but to sit forwards and wait to see which direction things fall. On a couple of occasions I am convinced the action has careened one way, only to have it flip once, and then once again.

In the absence of bold staging, and attacks upon our expectations of how we watch plays, would the script stand on its own? This feels to me both a good and a bad question. My answer ultimately has to be that this is a theatrical work, form is content and, to quote the hapless Joss, ‘Poetry makes you an active citizen.’ This production’s lyricism – physical, sound, movement – makes me an active audience member, and wins me over.

4 stars

Review by Ben Ross

An intimate portrait of a life

Australia 1943 to London 2021, and everything in between.

Alice is learning to be herself against the times. But how do the times shape who we are?

Playing out over a tumultuous eight decades, Alice’s complex relationships become a common thread in her personal journey, in this intimate portrait of a life.

Alexander Zeldin (LOVE, Faith, Hope and Charity) returns to the National Theatre with this international collaboration. Inspired by conversations with his mother and her peers, he brings to life a story of a woman’s attempts to be herself against the pressures of the time. The cast includes Eryn Jean Norvill and Pamela Rabe making their UK stage debuts, and music composed by Yannis Philippakis (Foals).

Production team
Director Alexander Zeldin
Set and Costume Designer Marg Horwell
Choreographer and Movement Director Imogen Knight
Lighting Designer Paule Constable
Composer Yannis Philippakis
Sound Design Josh Anio Grigg
Casting Jacob Sparrow
Australian Casting Serena Hill
Associate Director Joanna Pidcock
Dramaturgy Sasha Milavic Davies
Voice Director Cathleen McCarron

Lyttelton Theatre
National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX

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