Jane Bodie’s Hilt is a play about connections made and lost, about home – defining what it is, and finding our way back there; it’s about doing the ‘right’ thing insofar as we are able to, and trying not to regret the decisions and actions we make. It asks just how much are we willing to sacrifice to live ‘the dream’?
Playing at the Old 505 Theatre, Hilt was (we are told) written out of a disassociation with urban living and apartments in particular, the disconnection and compartmentalisation of life – like living in milk crates stacked on top of each other – is very much apparent in Bodie’s play, from the frequent muffled interruptions by the neighbours through eggshell-thin walls, to the conversations Kate and Adam share over breakfast in the middle of the play.
Set upon a simple and sparse white set designed by Katren Wood, there is a bed – frequently (and perhaps affectionately?) referred to as the “mezzanine” – a couch, several full bookshelves and not much else aside from a pile of books in the corner. Clean, crisp and ‘modern,’ there is a deliberate lack of what an interior designer would probably call ‘character’ to the design which perfectly reflects Kate and Adam’s strained and sometimes tempestuous relationship. Alexander Berlage’s clean bright lighting – which changes to a deep and moody blue during the scene changes – completes the sterile feel of the set, while providing a subtle warmth that amplifies the heart in Bodie’s writing.
There is a fierceness to Alexandra Aldrich’s Kate and Stephen Multari’s Adam, a fierceness which disguises a weariness and perhaps a sacredness. They are two people who are desperately trying to reach each other from either side of a disintegrating relationship; the more they fight it, the harder it becomes to regain their closeness. Joanna Downing’s Clara is a direct contrast to Sam O’Sullivan’s Nick; where she is cool and forthright, he is nervous and wants Kate to take control of the situation. There is a disarming directness to Clara and Downing’s portrayal of her, and you cannot help but get sucking into her orbit; like Adam, you cannot help but want to see her again, despite what the rules say. While O’Sullivan’s Simon is again different to his Nick, they both share an all-too-identifiable awkwardness, born of an unchecked attraction to Kate and a desire to please (or seem, at least, pleaseable).
There’s something in Bodie’s writing which seems effortless, but is actually quite difficult, to both write and perform. Her writing is all too human, her characters are like us, and we can perhaps see ourselves and our friends in them at times. There’s an attraction there, too, not far beneath the surface, and when it breaks, it is intoxicating; it’s smart, too, as well as painful and beautiful. As in all of Bodie’s work, there is a fierceness and a tenderness, a lyrical quality, which form two sides of the same coin, which are never too far away from each other. When coupled with her fascination with intimacy and honesty, more than a bit of claustrophobia and quite a strong proclivity for emotional rawness (and, sometimes, violence), her plays are gruelling, but there is a light at their end which could get lost or seem mawkish in inexperienced hands.
Here, director Dominic Mercer has coolly and measuredly created a production which doesn’t feel forced; rather, in trusting Bodie’s writing, her skill as a playwright, and the actors, he uncovers a tangible rawness, a real lived-in-ness to Bodie’s characters and scenes, and the cast play them with relish. There are echoes here of Bodie’s previous work, like This Year’s Ashes, A Single Act and Still and, if anything, it makes it just that little bit more real, more raw, to be riffing on established themes; cementing its place in Bodie’s world as much as our own.
My only minor quibble here is that one or two scene changes towards the end felt too long, although they were covering necessary costume changes. But that is only a minor quibble in an otherwise strong and confident production. At its heart is the uncompromising question – when we are pushed to the hilt, to the very limit of our being and all our strength is gone, how do we step back from the edge? How do we find our way back home? How do we find each other again?
Theatre playlist: 15. Girls, Death in Vegas