Carey Mulligan has had quite a week. First she shone as the warily intelligent cop in David Hare’s compelling TV drama, Collateral. Now she occupies the stage alone for 90 minutes in Dennis Kelly’s new play and charts with consummate skill the disintegration of a relationship. She is a joy to watch; only later did I find myself asking serious questions of the play itself.
Mulligan plays an unnamed woman (can characters please have monikers?) who begins by describing her first sight of her future husband in an easyJet queue at Naples airport. An amused smile plays about Mulligan’s lips, and her eyes sparkle as the woman recalls her hitherto rackety life and the delight with which she saw her spouse-to-be put a couple of queue-jumping models in their place. We are instantly intrigued, as we are by the next scene, which shows the woman as a harassed young mum coping with two unseen children who have the luck to be named as Leanne and Danny.
This alternation of confessional chat and pressurised domesticity continues throughout the piece. Mulligan is brilliant at engaging with the audience and charting the gradations of the relationship with the husband. He runs a thriving business importing antique wardrobes; she cons her way into a job as a development executive in TV documentaries. The sex, we’re told, is terrific, and the couple have two lively, imaginative kids. But halfway through we get intimations of disaster, and a play that starts as comedy ends as tragedy.
Mulligan, whose expressive features gradually acquire the stark lineaments of pain, couldn’t be this good if the writing weren’t strong. Kelly, lately associated with family shows such as Matilda and Pinocchio, returns to a theme that haunted much of his earlier work: the nature of violence. Here he is particularly concerned with whether it is built into the male gender’s DNA. It is striking that, in the children’s fantasy games, Danny is destructive and Leanne constructive. Mulligan’s character finds herself working on a putative TV doc that seeks to statistically record testosterised aggression and devise a system that would make it harder for men to gain power. It is quite a leap, however, from this to the play’s shattering conclusion.
The form also pre-empts doubt or debate. Describing the unravelling marriage, Mulligan says at one point: “I am, of course, just giving you one side … But that’s what happens when you have just one person talking.” This may be Kelly’s attempt to disarm criticism, but it also reminds us of the limited perspective of the solo piece.
The night before I happened to have seen a play, Peter Gill’s The York Realist, in which you sympathised equally with two lovers sundered by class and circumstance. Drama can do that, whereas, in the one-person play, you are forced to rely on the testimony of the speaker. Here you have only the woman’s word for it that the catastrophe is motivated by professional jealousy. This doesn’t gainsay the immense subtlety of Mulligan’s performance or the clarity of Lyndsey Turner’s direction and Es Devlin’s design, which moves rapidly from a box-like space to a blanched sitting-room that seems to exist in the speaker’s memory.
It’s a gut-wrenching piece, but if you are going to invoke Euripides, as Kelly does, I’d suggest you need to present both sides of the story.