Comment: 'Elegy' - how modern theatre is stifling lesbian intimacy

Comment: 'Elegy' - how modern theatre is stifling lesbian intimacy

Words: Riz Moritz

To clarify, this is not a review. These are just my thoughts on the play. 

Long story short, I believe theatre is a piece of art and it shouldn't be 'reviewed'. I don't believe in rating a piece of art (film/theatre/etc.) because it should be up to interpretation. Instead of 'critics', we should just have bloggers. If you read blogs, you'll understand that persons taste and whether it's similar to yours or not. Then you can follow them instead of trusting institutions and their star ratings.

Zoë Wanamaker as a woman struggling with a degenerative disease in Elegy. Photograph: Johan Persson

Zoë Wanamaker as a woman struggling with a degenerative disease in Elegy. Photograph: Johan Persson

On Saturday 7th May, the performance I saw of 'Elegy' at the Donmar Warehouse was a disappointment. I am pretty unsatisfied by how unfulfilling it was to watch...

Nick Payne's writing is boundless - he questions love, science and memory and answers the questions in the imaginable future. I, myself, suffer from memory loss and so I had personal motivations to see this play. But, of course, I was always eager to see what Payne's next play has in store after adoring Constellations. It asks whether we humans are just products of our memories - is that what our lives end up being? There is a huge amount of potential in this text. What a shame it wasn't justified in Josie Rourke's production.

There are two aspects that I feel are pretty unforgivable - the absence in taking risks when it comes to lesbians and when it comes to older women.  

I'm sure we are all aware of the current issue of how uncommon it is to seems to be to find female characters on stage that actually have depth, autonomy and agency, or even just a storyline that doesn't revolve around a man. But to see women who are in their 60s in a play with an exciting agenda, well this is almost unheard of.

In rehearsal with Zoë Wanamaker and Barbara Flynn. Photograph: Helen Maybanks. 

In rehearsal with Zoë Wanamaker and Barbara Flynn. Photograph: Helen Maybanks. 

In this performance of 'Elegy', it seemed to me like they were anxious to show a true-life lesbian couple. We are so used to seeing the 'acceptable' lesbian couples - the young and hot ones who we can sexually objectify for the pleasure of the ‘womanising’ man. All other lesbian couples are kept out in the peripherals; they are hidden away in the fringe – they are never our main-content.

No this gay couple is not the expected young and pornified type; Carrie and Lorna are a lesbian couple who met in their 40s and we now see them 20 years into their marriage. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a real life relationship. REAL. So, why are they hesitant to show them touch each other, kiss each other, ACT IN LOVE WITH EACH OTHER?!

If they were a straight couple, would we have seen more closeness on stage? The nearest we got to closeness was a peck on the lips - which had an unnecessary, dramatic build up, as if to say 'This is a massive gamble we've taken in the play... we have actually got them to kiss each other!'. I guess we did also see them hugging and lying together... for all of 30 seconds.

Their communication with one another was played far too safe. It wasn't convincing. I found it impossible to believe their love was as strong as the script made out and how much of a dilemma they were facing simply because they had zero genuine intimacy. And that is not me criticising their acting - I feel they did all they could with the direction they were given.

It was like watching a couple who really excite each other but are in public on a busy tube and are trying to keep all PDAs for when they are alone. But Carrie and Lorna were alone... nobody was watching them... why were they so distant? Is it to make sure the audience was comfortable? It made me wonder whether we are still living in an age where it is too awkward to see homosexuals communicate affectionately- because, bloody hell, that thought makes me sad.

Barbara Flynn and Zoe Wanamaker, 'Elegy', Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London 2016.

Barbara Flynn and Zoe Wanamaker, 'Elegy', Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London 2016.

The second unforgivable lack of risk they took was in the physical ability of their actresses. It was as if these women said in rehearsals 'I'm an older lady, please don't make me move around much, it'll be a lot for me to handle.'

The last scene, where they repeat the lines from the first scene, was some of the dullest 10 minutes I've ever lived. They were made to sit next to each other, on a chair, and deliver their lines in a slightly different tone and pace to when they first did.

Why was that scene not a movement piece? Or something that allows the female body to speak alongside the voice? I understand the simplicity, I understand that minimalism/realism was their big idea, but to me this is a frustrating decision because it comes across as though these women’s bodies are contained and restricted. A sad irony considering it is an all female cast, and the play itself pushes boundaries and has the potential to be an exploration.

I bet a significant percentage of men who go to see this play will come out of it thinking 'Now this is why we don't want to watch women, especially older women, because they are dull!'

Nick Payne has offered British theatre the opportunity to present older women in their true form - as the complex, witty, intricate and vibrant individuals they are. That opportunity wilted and died in this production.

I can imagine Zoë Wanamaker, Barbara Flynn and Nina Sosanya being able to give much braver and much more impressive performances than what was asked of them. It was very unsatisfying to see three evidently talented actresses not being able to deliver the agony of the play to us. Their performances were elegant but restricted.   

I went with my Mother to see 'Elegy', this is a lady who cries at everything - Eastenders included - and she did not shed a tear when watching Nick Payne's devastating story. And no wonder, how could she or anyone cry if we aren't allowed to connect with the characters? 

It is an emotive and affecting story, where the stakes are high, but the production's energy couldn't have been flatter. The communication on stage wasn't natural, which consequently led us to not being able to empathise with them - all very similar to Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone.

Considering the play is set up to drop a diversity bomb, it downright succeeds in delaying the bang. Why are we still trying to portray LGBT people in a way that must adapt to straight people's taste? Why are we still telling older female's arresting stories with utter staleness? For a 'truthful' take on the play, Josie's production of 'Elegy' wasn't very true-to-life.

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