Love and Other Acts of Violence
Donmar Warehouse, London

'Love and Other Acts of Violence' review - a pacy drama spirals with a contrived ending

Photo credit: Tom Mothersdale and Abigail Weinstock (Photo by Helen Murray)
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Monday, 18 October, 2021, 00:01
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Emotions come fast, sometimes funny and more often downright furious in Cordelia Lynn’s Love and Other Acts of Violence, which is two-thirds of a major play before going off the rails in a final sequence – an Epilogue which is arresting to look at but thematically hamfisted, even superfluous. The first so-called “proper” play to open at the Donmar Warehouse in 18 months (their much-acclaimed Blindness was a sound installation), this nervy and unnerving one-act is terrifically acted by its cast of three (that’s discounting two children seen briefly at the end) and marks a major achievement for two welcome new names: Elayce Ismail, the director, who locates a hurtling theatricality in a sometimes-tendentious text, and her designer, Basia Binkowska, whose set is a genuine thing of wonder unequalled in the coup de theatre department perhaps since the Hampstead’s visually astonishing premiere of Wild back in 2016.

The start immediately evokes the meet-fast/talk-quickly genre of play encountered earlier this year with Anna X, which came with its own director-as-provocateur. There, as here (and the much-travelled Constellations also comes to mind), we witness the sparks struck in an opening conversation conducted at top volume between two strangers who will end up defining one another’s lives. Here, they go simply by Him (Tom Mothersdale) and Her (Abigail Weinstock), in keeping with the tendency these days to keep characters as non-specific as possible. 

The first hour or more, the momentum kept at a real lick, shows the pair’s gathering mutual attraction to the point where they are sharing a bed and talking of starting a family: the scenes consist of cumulative fragments whose shifting tone owes much, as well, to Joshua Pharo’s lighting-fast stabs of light and to a soundscape from Richard Hammarton that seems at times to hover on the edge of some sort of abyss or apocalypse, as (very deliberately) does the play.

The male character, we discover, is an activism-minded history teacher who uses verbs like “besmirch” and has evidently moved quite some way beyond his working-class origins as the child of a Polish cleaner. Mothersdale invests the part with the edgy electricity that has become this invaluable actor’s stock-in-trade: oddly, it’s also the second history teacher he has played on stage this year, following his comparably superb performance in Simon Stephens’s contribution to Out West, the theatrical triptych seen this past May at the Lyric Hammersmith. 

His distaff soulmate is an academic physicist, and Jew, who appears to have fallen out of favour with her students – just one of several areas where one wishes for greater elucidation so as to amplify yet further the stakes involved. The divide between love and its opposite is tenuous and gets blurred more than once, pre-eminently in an envenomed exchange that coexists with the discovery that she has in fact changed her name: a recent graduate of London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, Abigail Weinstock is an immediate revelation in the role. She gives off an emotional transparency you presumably don’t learn in class.

Will these characters’ opposing pasts and the burden of history allow them to find a future together?  An answer arrives in an elaborately prepared Epilogue, set amidst the carnage wrought by a pogrom, whereby an entirely new, more realistic set descends to the stage floor, introducing with it the excellent Richard Katz as the father to Her’s own great-grandmother. Suddenly, we are in 1918 Lemberg and Mothersdale is back onstage, this time playing the great-grandfather of Him and the nemesis to the ancestor of the woman whom his assimilated English descendant will one day love. 

“What is it with you people and your tendency for disaster,” he asks with regard to the Jews (there’s a provocative question if ever a play contained one), only to add within minutes that the Poles’ history, too, is marked out by disaster. And suddenly, a play steeped in the abrasions of the here-and-now feels gerrymandered and contrived, as if Lynn’s overinsistence on proving a point had got the better of her instincts as a dramatist. We’ve seen the world of Lynn’s Epilogue before, not least in various iterations across London stages this season. It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered quite so uncompromising a vision of a landscape of this play’s first hour, whereby romance exists with terrifying immediacy on the precipice of ruin. 

Photo credit: Tom Mothersdale and Abigail Weinstock (Photo by Helen Murray)

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