It’s convoluted, and not just because there’s a play within the play. Clare (Kate O’Flynn) and Felice (Zubin Varla) are siblings and are actors on tour. They play characters with those exact same names in a play written by Felice, except Clare isn’t entirely happy with the play as it has been written and seeks to force alterations through. This isn’t unreasonable, one supposes, until it becomes clear she wishes to make the changes during a live performance of their play, in which they really are the only two people on stage (hence the play’s title – the play within the play has the same title as the play) because the entire company and crew have gone AWOL. Something to do with not being paid.
There is a further complication: not all of the set has arrived, so there will be a need to improvise, over and above Clare’s changes. The result, then, is a clunky narrative, filled with pauses and interruptions. It is mildly entertaining, especially as the siblings bicker, as siblings tend to do. The actual storyline of the play within the play becomes largely irrelevant as the audience is effectively given a truncated version of proceedings, and the couple (if I can call them that) slip in and out of character.
Had the play been written today, it almost certainly would have been more explicitly about mental health: Clare is encouraged to seek help but is reluctant to do so, and as the old adage would have it, one can lead a horse to water but one can’t make it drink. As with many Tennessee Williams plays, there are autobiographical influences at work – Clare’s erratic behaviours have their parallels in that of Williams’ own sister Rose.
The production has a surprising amount of relatability. Anyone who continues to seek a passion or a dream, in the face of ‘everyone’ either objecting or otherwise benignly not fully in support, might identify with Felice’s tenacity to keep going against the odds. Like most nuanced plays, there are pluses and minuses whichever direction the siblings take. There are even some intriguing points made about the acting profession. For instance, Felice the actor is so absorbed in Felice the character that it takes the actor a while to snap back into reality, much to Clare the actor’s chagrin.
In some respects, if the production leaves audiences more than a little baffled, it has achieved its purpose. It is not meant to be another tale with a definitive end point, particularly when neither actor is able to perform the play within a play as it is meant to be performed. The only hammy caricatures are in Clare and Felice the characters rather than Clare and Felice the actors, though both sets of siblings have their own demons to conquer.
Some late scenes are rather surreal, and I wonder if the play is meant to be indicative of life – unpredictable and unclear with a capital U. The cast put in engaging performances but in the end, not an awful lot goes on. It is too harsh to say I wanted to grab the revolver on stage and use it to shoot myself. But decades after its first Hampstead Theatre run, the show remains experimental, and this production didn’t quite have enough energy to sustain my interest throughout.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A doctor once told me that we were the bravest people he knew. I said, “Why, that’s absurd, my brother and I are terrified of our shadows.” And he said, “Yes, I know, and that’s why I admire your courage so much.”
Fellow actors, and brother and sister, Felice and Clare have been on tour far too long. Abandoned by the rest of their troupe, all that’s left is each other, an empty stage and an expectant audience. They will have to adapt accordingly and perform the only appropriate work in their repertoire: The Two Character Play…
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A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE ORIGINAL
THE TWO CHARACTER PLAY
Playwright Tennessee Williams
Kate O’Flynn plays the role of Clare.
Zubin Varla plays the role of Felice.
Director Sam Yates
Designer Rosanna Vize
Lighting Designer Lee Curran
Sound Designer Dan Balfour
Video Designer Akhila Krishnan
Movement Director Malik Nashad Sharpe
Casting Director Stuart Burt CDG
Assistant Director – Lizzie Manwaring
Dates: until Saturday 28 August 2021