The Citizens' Theatre's new
production of David Harrower's Olivier Award Winning 2005 play
Moral questions aside, however, this is a nuanced, well written play
Neil Haynes' set is a real strength in this production. The symbolically important door is white and powerful against the black of the backdrop, and the cheap chairs and the litter give a sense of the squalid and the left behind that really works well to sharpen the themes of the play.
The performances are both excellent. Camrie Palmer is hard and detached as Una, warming up to something human and damaged as the play breaks down her boundaries. Paul Higgins’ Ray is charismatic and sympathetic, playing hard ball with the audience’s expectation that he will be a monster. This is a play that wants us to understand the relationship between these two people as something real and even mutual, and the actors bring their skills to bear in making that clear. Their connection is undeniable from the beginning, and the way in which it deepens throughout is very nuanced and believably portrayed.
However, by presenting Ray, and this relationship, as something sympathetic, the production does something potentially quite problematic. The Citz' production of Into That Darkness last year followed arguably similar thematic lines: take an unforgivable person and try to understand them. In that play, it was Franz Stangl, famously monstrous Nazi Commandant, and the play was very successful in getting inside his head. However, although we were expected to stretch ourselves to understand and even empathise, we were never asked to sympathise with him. By contrast, the entire structure of Blackbird is built around the conceit that what existed between these two people can be meaningfully understood to have been a real relationship. Ray is given almost all the best speeches, and his interpretation of what happened is usually agreed to by Una. The play deepens our understanding of their relationship, but that depth always seems to be in the direction of providing Ray with the best possible defence. One has to wonder whether in a culture like ours, which already has a lot of problems surrounding sexual consent, this is a particularly helpful idea to propagate.
Moral questions aside, however, this is a nuanced, well written play, and the interpretation given to it in this production is engaging and challenging.