See me, feel me: Griffin Theatre Company’s Caress / Ache

In 2005, Nguyen Tuong Van was executed in Singapore, having been convicted of drug trafficking. Immediately prior to his execution, the Singaporean government declared that he could not hug or be hugged by anyone, including his mother. Inspired by this event, playwright Suzie Miller wrote Caress/Ache, a play which in its world premiere season at the hands of Griffin Theatre Company gains a new and pertinent resonance by the pending fate of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia. However, for a play about the need for connection and touch between people, there is a curious lack of connection between text, performers, and our emotions.

In Miller’s play, “a brilliant surgeon can no longer bear to touch the living. Two voices connect fleetingly over the phone. A desperate mother begs to embrace her son one last time. A young woman seeks atonement.” Each person seeking something they cannot have, each person craving something they cannot feel or express. Unfolding on a tiled white room – which serves all at once and in turn as a sterile operating theatre, a morgue, a bathroom, domestic spaces, a prison cell, an airport – characters ghost through the back of others’ scenes, underscoring Miller’s thesis but also widening the gap between characters; showing just how disparate we are and can be in our current society. Phrases like text-book definitions of touch, senses, feeling, emotions pepper the walls in projections that break up the flow of Miller’s play, but they feel superfluous, heavy handed, and at times as though Miller doesn’t trust us, the audience, to make the connection ourselves between idea and manifestation.
Director Anthony Skuse keeps the play moving, heightening the overlap between characters, moments, ideas, scenes, so that disparate scenes are often played together, mirroring and complementing each other. There are touches of a movement-based language of expression in the opening scenes which are, unfortunately, not developed further. Moments like when the doctor is explaining the operation he’s performing, or when the two lovers accost each other in their first scene – it feels like a remnant of an earlier conception of the play, an idea which hasn’t been explored further; if it had been more fully deployed, it could have lent the production an additional texture which could have amplified and played off Miller’s scenes, in much the same way that Steve Rodgers’ play Food gained a forceful vitality from the influence of Kate Champion’s Force MajeurSkuse’s normally gently forceful direction is countered by the overbearing presence of Nate Edmonson’s score. Through-composed to the point of being unrelentingly emotional and at times unnecessarily saccharine, Edmonson’s score sounds like a cross between Philip Glass and Alexandre Desplat, and provides the emotional tug we don’t quite get through Miller’s writing. But as present as it is, it feels as though it’s overcompensating, that it is trying to fill the void left by Miller’s scenes, which don’t quite fully explore the idea of (the lack of) touch which she sets out to do.
There are two moments in the ninety-minute play which ache to be expanded upon, which resonate between people, characters, emotions: the scenes between Cate and Mark, separated by a phone call, she doing what he cannot bear to do – touch another person; and the scene between two women at the airport, reaching out to each other, almost wordlessly, even though the space is so pregnant with words. The final moments, in the prison in Singapore, are haunting in their simplicity, but we never quite gain the emotional punch to the stomach that Miller wants us to have, because we haven’t been allowed to organically feel the scenes; our emotions have been manipulated, we have been dictated to feel through the music, and thus the emotional reward of the final moments, when two people finally connect, never comes.

While Miller’s play takes a while to find its rhythm, it comes alive in the last third as we are allowed to feel scenes and emotions more, as we are allowed to connect with the characters more as people than ideas, but it isn’t quite enough to make us truly feel the power in Miller’s words and situations. We still ache for the emotional touch of Miller’s play once the lights have dimmed.

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