Celebrated director Sarah Frankcom makes her debut at Hampstead Theatre in a spartan production of Naomi Wallace’s morality-defying play The Breach. Commissioned by the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Wallace says it ‘was then sent packing due to fears about some stories in the play hitting too close to home’.
a haunting and fascinatingly stark encounter with human nature
Six actors play three characters at two points in their lives; a seventh appears only in the earlier period. The action starts in 1977, when the kids are in high school, and alternates between then and 1991 when they look back on the events of their formative years. It’s set in industrial Kentucky, where Wallace grew up, but the subject matter is sufficiently universal as to make that of little consequence. The time span includes the Reagan years and the emergence of neoliberalism, referenced here, if only tangentially, in the form of poor safety conditions at work and the rise of powerful, billion-dollar pharmaceutical and insurance companies.
Seventeen-year-old Jude (Shannon Tarbet) works all hours to keep the family going. There is just her, her mother and her younger brother Acton (Stanley Morgan). He is bullied at school and she is desperately protective of him. Their house has a basement and two guys from his school agree to protect him as long as they can have access to it for the club they intend to form. Jude agrees. Along the lines of a fraternity pledge, Hoke (Alfie Jones) decides each must now make a sacrifice to become part of the group. This will show his loyalty to the brotherhood and demonstrate that they are bound to each other. Additionally, he rules that whatever the first person does, the next must do something that is of greater sacrifice, more serious and more demanding. He goes first; after which the tension mounts and peer pressure dominates the situation. Frayne (Charlie Beck) rises to the occasion and raises the stakes with what he does. The academic Acton, somewhat shy and nervous, is at a loss as to how he can follow that. To help him out the boys come up with an idea, but it involves his sister. He protests, but not enough for the scheme to be abandoned and so he becomes complicit.
They are haunted by the knowledge of what happened for the next fourteen years until Hoke (Tom Lewis) and Frayne (Douggie McMeekin) can bear it no longer and decide to spill the beans to Jude (Jasmine Blackborow). In what should be a straightforward recounting of events the plot thickens and twists occur with each side reeling from shocks and surprises. The meeting is not the one-sided event they imagined it would be. Never believe you have the upper hand until you know all the facts. The balance of power swings back and forth between Jude and the two boys and even revelations about the behaviour of the seemingly truthful Acton all those years ago throw a spanner in the works.
The actions and motives of them all are laid as bare as Naomi Dawson’s stage on which they stand. The cold, black, raked slate with just a fault-line running diagonally across it offers nowhere to hide, just as once the revelations begin to flow there is no turning back, no covering up and they will all be exposed for what they are. Both the plotting of Act I and the confessions of Act II are harrowing and at times uncomfortable to listen to. Knowing some of what is to come out gives a sense of dread as to how agonising the occasion might be. The reality justifies the trepidation: it’s painful stuff you’d rather not hear. More than that, it raises questions. How can people behave in that way? What motivates them? How do they live with themselves? But the play is not about giving answers.
Here, in the actions of a few people, we have portrayed a chilling microcosm of society, in which people lie, betray their friends, conjure up and commit atrocities, fail to confront the truth and when they do it is to make themselves feel better rather than ease the burden on those they have violated and offended.
It doesn’t make for an easy two hours and can leave a sense of drained numbness, but it’s a haunting and fascinatingly stark encounter with human nature.