Written and directed by “l’auteur du naturalisme”, Alexander Zeldin, The Confessions feels like a too-small show on a too-big stage. It is playing for only two weeks at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton between two theatrical spectacles: the powerful staging of Jamie Lloyd’s The Effect and the (expected) budget blowout for Christmas show, The Witches. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Crammed with enough displays of meta-theatricality tricks to fill a drama student’s bingo card
It attempts to make its presence felt by demonstrating a sense of its own theatrical superiority. It wears techniques like brash shiny badges, unashamedly telling us how clever it is. Critics will love it for being clever. They will tell you to see it so you can feel clever too.
If you like being told what to enjoy, then The Confessions is one to add to your list. For everyone else, best just to blink and let it pass you by.
The play opens when a ‘woman-off-the-street’ awkwardly walks on to the stage. Standing in front of the still-down curtain, she speaks nervously to us. She doesn’t know why we would be interested in hearing her story: she’s “not clever…not interesting.”
Of course, we know this is theatre, but the cues are also writ large to avoid mistake.
Amelda Brown is the woman – the older version of the play’s protagonist Alice – her body cowed, arms flailing, and eye contact poor to ‘play real’. The curtain resembles an old music hall prop. The line is faux self-deprecation, the theatrical equivalent of the fashionista’s “what? this old thing?”. Such well-worn tropes will either bore you for what is to come or make you hard for being in on the self-aware display of its own intelligence.
What follows is two excruciatingly mind-numbing hours, crammed with enough displays of meta-theatricality tricks to fill a drama student’s bingo card. Zeldin previously wowed critics with his hard-hitting, naturalistic social commentary in the Inequalities Trilogy: LOVE; Faith, Hope and Charity; and Beyond Caring. His nothing-much-happens storylines, delivered with underplayed line readings, may have worked in the intimate Dorfman. In the Lyttelton, the emptiness left by such an approach is like a chasm that left me cold.
We’re told the story is inspired by conversations Zeldin had with his mother – and her acquaintances – during lockdown. Not sure why lockdown is relevant here other than implying he was just killing time. These memories become snapshots of Alice’s life, in disparate scenes spread over eight decades across three continents. There is perhaps a comment on the fragility of memory here; the way we remember things not actually being how they happened.
This would explain why we are never allowed to get involved with the action onstage. We are shown it is a set within a set within a set. The staging exists inside a false pros arch that we watch revolving and being reset by the stage crew and cast between scenes. The house lights are left on for at least half the show. If you have ‘Brechtian’ on your bingo card, tick it off now.
Alice begins as a shy, average student, who flirts with visiting Naval officers and fails her first year at Uni. Her mother and friends encourage her to give up her dreams of being an artist and accept her lot as a wife and mother. She marries unhappily. She reads some books and quotes them uncomfortably. One of her friends moves to Europe and embraces lesbian tendencies. She goes to evening class and makes a new friend, with possible gender disassociation. Her unhappy husband wants to cash in his rights as a heterosexual and bring an unhappy child into their unhappy marriage. She refuses. Then accepts. Then refuses.
This all takes place during a dinner party made up of guests who we don’t get to know, and who are unlikely to ever be friends. A trifle is eaten in silence. A man displays inherent sexism as he talks of his life in Spain. Alice is compared to a gypsy as she gyrates to the music put on the record player. People speak over each other. Sentences are left unfinished. There’s some shouting. Simone de Beauvoir is quoted. Affairs are unsubtly implied. Anger is badly suppressed, then comically displayed. Then we just move on.
If you’re keeping up, your bingo card should now be filled with checks over “playing naturalism.” It’s like Caryl Churchill as represented by students of Caryl Churchill.
As we skim through poor Alice’s life decade by decade, we get more of the same. Often the action is overlooked by older Alice, remembering, reacting, and sometimes stepping into events as they unfold. At one point, older Alice takes over as her younger self, stripping naked to reassert control over a man who may have raped younger Alice. It’s a scene that’s either powerful in its display of sexual liberation, or exploitative in its use of nudity in the elderly. You can decide which box it ticks for your scorecard.
A lot happens over 80 years. Because a lot happens over 80 years. We see events in Alice’s life and the impact the society evolving around her has on it. It’s crammed with enough issues and comments to bring a Guardian reader to orgasm. Primarily these are gender and sexuality based. Through marriages, divorces, births, and deaths, we see Alice deal with gender, homosexuality, sexual expression, sexual liberation, sexual equality, sexual control, and sexual assault. Strangely it is not at all sexual.
It is the type of naturalism that veers on being impossible to watch. Yes, we know people often sit in silence. We know that not everything spoken is heard. But, jeez, can you give us something more engaging than half-finished lines delivered like TV soap opera actors playing to camera? Watching people in real life can have a voyeuristic appeal. For a few minutes. It quickly becomes boring, and you move on. When this is all there is to see, having empathy is nigh on impossible.
The Confessions is the result of a bunch of clever theatrical conceits made by people who like other people to know how clever they are. It set out to be good theatre, knows it's good theatre, and is proud to be good theatre. But an intelligent audience has seen techniques like the ones used here before. Relying so heavily on them is not good enough.
I may be alone in my discerning view on a press night likely to garner glowing reviews. But it was also a press night that saw several people leave before the one act play had finished. Though I couldn’t ascertain the reasons for leaving, I doubt it was due to offence or shock. More likely it was just due to boredom. Or maybe they had filled their bingo card and took the opportunity to leave early and claim their prize.
If you want to wear a badge to show you “get theatre”, go and see The Confessions. Otherwise, you’d be better off going to see something that isn’t so far up its own theatrical arse that it’s forgotten how to make theatre we enjoy because we want to. Not because we are told we should.