Last Updated on February 25, 2022
New play at Hampstead Downstairs explores family trauma
‘We are bonobos,’ declares one of the family members in The Animal Kingdom, the title of a new play by Ruby Thomas. ‘Bonobos can be pretty aggressive actually.’ This world premiere, directed by Lucy Morrison at the Hampstead Downstairs, traces a course of family therapy wherein a very human family has space to explore its challenges. I had to Google ‘bonobo’ to discover that it is an endangered great ape. In The Animal Kingdom, one of the characters is fighting for his survival while the wider family have some attitudes and behaviour patterns that are endangered as the therapy process challenges them to explore the past. The play traces the family’s journey through six family therapy sessions where they seek to understand a shocking event that has taken place. As any family therapist knows, there is no one truth, every member of the group has their own truth and therein lies the rub. Active listening is required for productive communication and families differ in how much truth they are ready to hear from one another. In The Animal Kingdom, there would be no drama if this family already knew how to listen and be heard effectively.
The physical intimacy of the Hampstead Downstairs theatre lends itself well to portraying the intensity in the therapy room and the audience feels up close and personal. It is reminiscent of the family therapist training process where supervisors and students observe sessions through one-way mirrors in order to learn their craft and offer their therapeutic insights to the family. Part of the power of therapy is its ability to contain the emotions and the person expressing them. This is a considerable challenge in family therapy where feelings run high and everyone needs to speak, be heard and to be understood. Not only must the therapist be containing but the space too. Hampstead Downstairs is just such a space for this particular theatrical performance.
The Animal Kingdom is a very moving play that presents an authentic depiction of a family attempting to make sense of itself through therapy. Sam (Ragevan Vasan) is a depressed and agitated 21-year-old student, currently an inpatient in a psychiatric unit for reasons that become clear as the play unfolds. His divorced parents, Rita (Martina Laird) and Tim (Jonathan McGuiness) join a family therapy session along with Sam’s younger sister, Sophie (Ashna Rabheru). The sessions are led by family therapist, Daniel (Paul Keating) who struck just the right note of containing and encouraging the family to engage and take risks with one another so as to enable Sam to begin to heal. The drama is true both technically and emotionally to what families experience in a therapy session. It allows for the unfolding of family secrets, inter-generational trauma and terrific character development.
The play is well crafted and the emotional ebbs and flows are skillfully handled. Just as an emotionally climactic moment reduces the audience to tears, the playwright breaks the tension with a sharp bolt of humour that releases the audience as much as the characters. I wondered how the play would wrap up and was relieved that Thomas chose the ending that she used which well reflected the complexity of the material she explores in the drama. Vasan, in his role as Sam, used subtle behavioural changes throughout the play to great effect in portraying how his treatment was enabling him to reach a calmer place, yet one which could offer no unrealistic outcomes.
Director, Morrison, has drawn strong performances from all the actors and finds the right pitch for the raw emotions which could in less capable hands, sound clichéd or overblown. Such an introspective play in which the action is in the relationships rather than any major plot, demands subtle emotional shifts within each character and between them. We witness how Tim and Sophie find their voice while Rita needs to learn to listen. In this, they are guided by therapist, Daniel, whose empathy is most convincing. This is all very true to the tone of the therapy room and never comes across as inauthentic. As would happen in family therapy, each family member is given space to express their feelings and in building the script around this structure, each character can reveal previously unknown thoughts and experiences, some shocking, all poignant. The background to Sam’s difficulties in his young life begins to piece together jigsaw style. This structuring of the play put me in mind of a jazz set where each player and instrument gets its solo, riffs on the theme and develops its full voice.
The Animal Kingdom refers throughout to the animal world which is like an archetypal connection to our collective communication with the past and the planet. The swifts that nest outside Sam’s hospital window mirror his emotional screams and remind him of his ‘spark bird’, his first experience of deep connection to and communication with a bird to which he was drawn as a child. In his case it was a mangled swift which his mother could not bear to look at but which Sam recognised, unconsciously then, as symbolic of his own inner distress.
The staging of The Animal Kingdom is simple but effective. The characters swop chairs between acts, denoting both a new therapy session and allowing the audience – whom they face with their backs – to see the expression on different character’s faces as they move around. During one poignant scene when the therapist reveals his own traumatic background, I was rather sorry to not be only to see his expression as he spoke.
I thought that this play has a potential that goes beyond just a drama to watch in the theatre and wondered whether it might be used as an educational tool. The content is, unfortunately, all too topical for young people whose mental health challenges are greater than ever and with treatments like that Sam receives sadly scarce in our cash strapped mental health services. Sam makes the point that his father is paying a fortune for his 8-week stay in a private hospital. There is so much to learn and discuss that arises from The Animal Kingdom that could be a launching space for discussion between young people and their families.
The Animal Kingdom is on at Downstairs Hampstead until 26 March 2022.