The first thing you notice is the smell. The moist wet earthy smell of dirt and grass. A garden, a backyard. Flowers. It smells fulsome, vaguely animal, like a children’s petting farm. Like lambs. And I’m instantly, eerily, reminded of Company B’s production of Love Me Tender Upstairs in 2010, of Colin Moody standing on that little slither of grass holding the lamb in his arms, staring out at the audience. It’s a curious reminder, too, since both Love Me Tender and this play, Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, share the character of Iphigenia, drawn from Greek mythology.
Set now, in a world we could safely say is our own, Brookman’s play unfolds with an intoxicating mix of warmth, humanity, gentle humour and a strangely compelling sense of being part of something much bigger and uncontainable. Loosely adapted from the myth of Orestes, Clytaemnestra, Electra, and Agamemnon, Small and Tired tells the story of Orestes’ return following his father’s death, and the tensions and conversations he has with his family that erupt and flare and conflagrate over his arrival back into their lives after half a lifetime’s absence in one way or another.
As the play, like the characters’ lives and secrets, unravels on Mel Page’s little rectangle of a yard, we begin to see that despite all the shit that they carry around with them and hang on to, there are still currents that run deep within the family, currents of love and closeness, ties that cannot be broken or ignored so easily. Page’s set and costumes are extraordinary in their simplicity and ordinariness, but they serve to heighten and ground the mythic nature of Brookman’s source within our own world, within our own lives. When coupled with the warmth and gentleness of Verity Hampson’s lighting, and the gentle unobtrusiveness of Tom Hogan’s sound design and composition, there really are no weaknesses in this production. Hogan’s music, heard in glimpses and fragments, is like a memory from a long time ago or a faded photograph – it sounds familiar, but we’re never quite sure why or where we’ve heard it before.
Small and Tired is about a family and about families in general, specific in its ordinariness. It’s about the secrets that often lie buried at the heart of families, and the feuds or rifts that often run beneath the surface. Feuds which often being for one reason or another and continue for years, decades, until they become meaningless, the reason forgotten long ago, and yet you still keep at it because you’ve forgotten how to be otherwise. It’s also about “restlessness and modern love, about the rootlessness of the times, about the brokenness of our sense of family and humanity.” And though it is about the dead, it is also about the living, and the (sobering) idea that “love is an ancient thing we have to learn and re-learn from generation to generation.” While slightly overwritten at times, characters tending to go on longer than they would really, it is more than made up for by its gentle wit and cleverness, its disarming charm and its encapsulation of the bittersweetness of life.
Sometimes elliptical as to what happened to Iphigenia twenty-two years ago, Brookman’s play is by the same turn unforgivingly honest and makes no bones about it. You could easily hate these characters, as they bicker and pick at old wounds, but by the end you don’t, not really, because you can see yourself in them, because you know that you’ve found yourself doing exactly the same thing at times. And it’s a testament to the cast - every one of them - as well as the writer, that they can make an audience feel like that at the end of a play.
There’s a lot to enjoy and revel in in Brookman’s play, “a small play which echoes large.” As Matthew Lutton says about Love Me Tender, the garden is “healthy, but it has re-grown out of muck, and this past must not be forgotten.” Death and dying is not something we talk about, freely, with much eloquence, or at all. As Inga Clendinnen writes in Agamemnon’s Kiss, “we talk about sex, polities, gender, the economy, none of which we can do much about either, but we do not talk about death.” Perhaps we can use stories like these, old stories, big stories, to help us talk about the inevitable which is coming for all of us. And perhaps we can try and make sense of it all, try and understand each other, before it is too late.
Theatre playlist: 29. Small Memory, Jon Hopkins