Another play I managed to have time to see during my New York theatre holiday was the Broadway premiere of David Harrower’s play. I knew very little beforehand, but was an admirer of the work of both actors.
Set in a break room of a dreary office building, Una (Michelle Williams) has arrived at the workplace of Ray (Jeff Daniels) having not seen him for 15 years. However, this is not an ordinary meeting and it very quickly becomes clear that Ray was a former neighbour and that the two of them had a sexual relationship. What makes this more shocking is that, at the time, Ray was 40 and Una was only 12 years old. After being released from prison, Ray has moved away, changed his name and started again (the offence having been committed before the sex offenders register existed). Tonight however, Una is determined to make him face her and the consequences of his actions.
Over the course of 80 minutes, we watch as these two damaged people unleash their pent up emotions and the more they do, the more the lines blur regarding how they each view what happened and how they now feel about one another. It proves to be a thought-provoking experience for the audience.
The two actors are very good indeed. Michelle Williams, dressed in a floaty dress, designed to make her seem more childlike, plays Una’s jumble of emotions wonderfully. She is a complex character, whose childhood has understandably affected her whole life. She is like an unstable chemical element, which you expect to explode at any moment. In certain moments she speaks of how many men she’s slept with and yet in others she regresses to more childlike behavior, suggesting someone still on some emotional level trapped in the past. She wants to be in control of this meeting, stalking Ray around the room and seemingly enjoying just how scared he is of her and her unexpected reappearance in his life.
In a role he played during its original Off-Broadway run in 2007, Jeff Daniels takes his lead from her, as Ray struggles to try and explain the past from his perspective. Although I felt myself focusing on Williams’s performance, Daniels convincingly plays a man haunted by Una, who despite his larger frame at times appears small and weak in her presence. It’s not an easy role and it’s a testament to the actor that you sometimes forget that he is a criminal.
I’ve seen some comments as to whether this was love or abuse. I think this is too simplistic a question. For me, it is perhaps more unclear for Ray and Una from their perspectives than from mine as an audience member. There is clearly a connection between the two of them and they are still drawn to each other, which seems to excite and terrify them in equal measure. However I never questioned the inappropriateness of Ray’s actions. Una was a child, not even a teenager, but a pre-pubescent 12 year-old girl.
He spends a lot of time trying to make clear that he isn’t one of those men, that he doesn’t have those urges towards children and that he didn’t set out to have sex with a child. You are never truly sure if he really believes this or if it’s what he’s been telling himself ever since to move on. This uncertainty about Ray is brought home even more by the play’s powerfully unresolved conclusion, which in one moment made me shudder.
To add to the emotional complexity, as the play continues, you realise that Una’s anger stems more from a feeling of abandonment by Ray than from what he actually did. Ultimately the tragedy for these two people is had they met later in life, things could have been very different.
The strongest section of the play is when Una is reliving their last night together and its aftermath for her. The stage lighting changes gradually growing dimmer as she delves further in to those past events. So powerful is Williams here that you feel as if you are reliving it with her. You can see it in your mind’s eye and feel jolted when brought back to the present. It was hugely effective and the most powerful part of the production.
Certain aspects didn’t work for me. I grew to find the stilted, clipped dialogue of the early part of the play frustrating. Also the throwing around of rubbish by these two people at that point in proceedings didn’t, for me, achieve anything. All the verbal and sometimes physical sparring and outpouring of emotions beforehand were much more interesting.
Blackbird is not a comfortable play to watch by any means and although it didn’t impress me as much as other productions I saw in New York, it was certainly a powerful, thought-provoking and at times disturbing experience.
Blackbird continues its run at the Belasco Theatre (111. West 44th St.) until 11th June 2016. Running-time: 80 minutes approx. (no interval). $32 rush tickets are available each morning at the box office. For more information visit the website.