Content warning: references to suicide
Off the Cliff’s production of A Bench at the Edge is a dark and touching hymn to simply being “alive”, but it falls short of embracing the true depth of its subject matter.
A woman sits on a bench at the edge of the abyss. This is Number One (Meg Lake). It’s quiet, until another woman enters, distressed and ready to jump. This is Number Two (Harriet Main). Over the next minutes they talk, fight, confide and debate the ‘heroic dive’ that many, and they, may take.
The plain, black box studio, with only a bench for set, was an effectively sparse backdrop for the audience to project their own interpretations of the surreal location of the ‘cliff’. Where the stage ended and the audience began was the ‘abyss’ – a characterless void of terrifying, yet attractive, nothingness – an interesting choice, giving me the feeling that we were watching from a greater distance than we were.
“Truly genuine moments”
From there, the performance expands into a poignant metaphor for suicide and mental health. Moving from the tragic, with Number One describing the ‘bullets’ who rush over the edge dragging family members and children with them in a horrifically unaffected way, to the touching, as Number Two described looking in the mirror and scrunching up her eyes at her reflection, asking it why it can’t be happy after she’s given it everything. The play contained truly genuine moments that brought tears to my eyes. The unchanging set reflected the tragic sense of perpetuity voiced by Number One: “I live here”, she tells Number Two, never returning and never going over. However, this illusion is broken slightly by Number One entering the space while the audience is already sat. Having her already sitting there would have been an easy way of creating the sense of continuity the play tried to portray.
This sense of not committing fully to a concept was also evident in the performance’s gestures towards the Theatre of the Absurd (a genre mentioned in the play’s programme). While it dipped its toe in, with ebb and flow of the roundabout conversations between Number One and Number Two gesturing towards the futility of language to tackle incomprehensible topics like suicide, the performance flitted between absurdism and realism without quite committing to either. Any performance of this style, especially one with two characters who spend the play waiting and talking onstage, rightly or wrongly, draws comparisons to Beckett and Waiting for Godot. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite reach those stylistic heights. While obviously a difficult and delicate subject to tackle, there were times when the metaphor felt slightly on the nose, such as when the characters literally call each-other ‘Number One’ and ‘Number Two’. The characters definitely adhered to the absurdist premise of lost characters in an incomprehensible world, but did not commit enough to the illogicality and nonsensicalness that characterises the genre.
Where the performance did embrace this irrationality, however, was in the bleak comedy of some of its darkest moments. Moments such as Number One flicking through a newspaper commenting on the latest deaths while Number Two, in the midst of a breakdown, screams into the void ‘I HATE CONFUCIUS’ – I found myself laughing and then instantly judging myself for doing so – it felt like laughing at a funeral. In making the audience laugh about death and pain, A Bench at the Edge captured the truth that there is no rational response to these painful life experiences, and did so with intelligence.
“The performance flitted between absurdism and realism without quite committing to either”
The use of live music was also a stellar choice. Taking the form of an onstage cellist (Samuel Creer), this was used for both emotional and comic effect. Its inclusion evoked emotion better than any words could, whether slow and wrenching (to accompany an emotional monologue) anxious fast-paced beats (as a ‘bullet’ approaches) or a horrific yet hilarious descending note (to represent the ‘heroic fall’ itself).
As characters, the two women also provided interesting foils to each other. Number One was older, wiser and light-hearted to the point of cruelty, with a loose blue costume which seemed at odds with her character – until you realise the tragic reason. Working in contrast to the younger Number Two’s stiff, poised and erratic demeanour, epitomised in her sharp business dress, an almost mother-daughter relationship was created, making some of the darker moments in the play all the more twisted for it. The contrast in their pain evoked a distinct harmony; the slow, deep legato of Number One’s suffering versus the high keen staccato of Number Two’s pain weaved together through the music to create something truly touching.
Ultimately, the performance took its time to get into the swing of it. Both actors, to me, seemed to take a bit of time to transition from ‘acting’ their parts to relaxing into being their parts – and the end arrived too quickly. The highs could have been higher, and the lows lower. However, the middle was touching, jarring and deeply empathetic.
A Bench at the Edge ran at the Tristan Bates theatre from 26th – 30th November 2019. More information can be found here.
Image: Kenneth Jay