CONTRACTIONS Written by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Greg Karvellas with Emily Child & Janna Ramos-Violante. At Alexander Upstairs until February 13. TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews
If the volume and quantity of groans heard on a Monday morning are indicative of the way the majority of people feel about going to work, it’s generally not the most popular place for most people to be. Given that most people who do enjoy fixed employment spend a large percentage of their lives behind a desk or a sales counter, one would hope that the environment would be at the very least pleasant. The work- place in Contractions is anything but, and will leave you with a renewed appreciation for your place of work and your manager, if you have one.
The play is written by Mike Bartlett who at the age of 36 has already earned several awards, including the 2010 Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in An Affiliate Theatre. His play Cock, was staged at the Alexander last year and he is particularly adept at running a scalpel along the fault lines of human interactions.
Originally written for and performed on radio in 2007 as Love Contract, the text is so razor sharp that one could listen with your eyes closed and still picture the tension. You would however miss the remarkable performances by the two actors who are virtually visual carbon copies of each other. Impeccably dressed in uniform like corporate attire, with perfectly coiffed very blonde hair it is only Emma who shows any sign of dishevelment during their interactions.
Seated at either end of a table, they could be the mirror image of each other. Initially it appears that it is only their physical appearances that are identical. By the end of the play you may not be as sure of their internal differences.
Emma (Emily Child) is summonsed to her manager’s office more than once. From the initial meeting where banal pleasantries are offered and politely refused it is clear who has the upper hand. By the final meeting you dread the squeaking of the door as it announces her presence in the room which has more in common with a police interrogation room than a boardroom.
A table under-lit with fluorescent light and two chairs are the stark backdrop for the deceptively simple yet increasingly psychotic duel.
While this is a two-hander don’t expect an equal volley or exchange of shots. Rather Ramos-Violante serves each of her questions as if she is practising with vehemence against a wall with no anticipation of a reply. She serves the shots and controls the responses, there is no quid pro quo here. She asserts her authority in subtle, yet very certain ways both in the controlled timbre of her voice and the unflinching physicality of her posture. Last seen on stage in Cape Town in Venus in Fur and Constellations, she is no stranger to complex roles and she delivers this one superbly. Where previously she has worn her emotions on her sleeve one wonders throughout this production if she actually has any, so severe and dismissive is her demeanour.
Her character called to mind an Ayn Rand type commitment to work and resonates with the quote from Rand’s book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, “the average man does not possess the genius’s power of self-confident resistance, and will break much faster; he will give up his mind, in hopeless bewilderment, under the first touch of pressure.”
While it is not the first touch of pressure under which Emma unravels there is a touch of genius in the manager’s slow and steady whittling of her sense of worth.
Child is as brilliant as she was in The Pervert Laura, the role that earned her the Best Actress Award at the Fleur Du Cap Awards in 2015. Her fragility is tempered during the course of the play and she evaluates just how high a price she is prepared to pay for her position. It is slight movements of her hands, the conscious placing of her palms on her lap as she seems to steady herself for another barrage of questions that betray her emotions.
Questions about her relationship with her colleague Darryn cause her to tug revealingly on her ear lobe. Each of the only slightly perceptible physical movements are a clue to her psychological state which she tries her level best to keep in check.
This is a work environment which doesn’t tolerate “mess, play or failure”, and even a hint of it is firmly discouraged. You will have to watch the play to discover just how far they are prepared to go to keep their employees in line, and how willing the employees are to accede to the demands.
Contractions explores one contractual relationship in one company, but exposes the increasing cost of employment generally. In an increasingly fragile economy where jobs become scarcer, the lengths that people will go to retain employment become more extreme. The light-hearted witty puns of the production are overshadowed by the dark comedy, which lifts it out of a purely dramatic piece and will have you laughing nervously at the more accurate depictions of corporate culture. As the dialogue becomes progressively more bizarre it retains enough credibility to draw nods of recognition from the audience. A feature of watching the performance that was even more chilling than the performance itself.
Karvellas is a masterful director and seems to have a particular knack for two-handers. The brutally clever Frontiersmen, written by Louis Viljoen which pitted two property developers against each other was another tightly wrought production which exposed the dark underbelly of patriarchy and capitalism. He also co-directed A human being died that night, where the nature of pure evil was stripped bare on stage. He coaxes performances which are understated yet deliberately malevolent. The delivery in this piece is somewhat rushed and a slower pace would add to the dramatic tension, something I am sure the actors will resolve as the run progresses.
Contractions is a wickedly clever exploration of how we relate to work in a world, where on one hand we are bombarded with Steve Jobs’ encouragement to “follow your passion”, and the very grim employment choices that most of us have to face. If, however, the situation on stage bears any semblance at all your current employment situation may I suggest that penning a resignation letter is your first order of business.