Last Updated on October 24, 2023
No life is ordinary
Playwright Alexander Zeldin writes that he is bored with plays about the lives of famous people. He wanted to write about ordinary lives and in preparation for doing so, he interviewed his mother (80) and some of her peers. In The Confessions, which he directs at the Lyttelton Theatre, he has mined a rich seam of material and crafted it into a play that is brimming with drama, pathos, strength and vulnerability, humour and dark nights of the soul. For, in a life most ordinary, we find the very feelings and experiences that make us human and this is a very human play. Zeldin hopes that we will all feel that the play is about our own lives and, especially perhaps for the women in the audience, this may well ring true.
The Confessions spans both time and space from Australia in 1943 to London in 2021. It begins with Alice and a couple of school friends eagerly anticipating the arrival of a group of naval cadets and takes us all the way through to an older Alice, aged 80, telling her son about her life. He discovers hidden secrets that his mother has never spoken about.
How many women will not relate to the experience of being young, naïve and plagued with self-doubt? Even if we were not coming into our adulthood in the 1940s – readily accepting and even promoting our own lack of intellectual or academic ability. How many women feel that the lives their mothers envisaged for them were based on fear and the need for their daughter to secure her future through marriage even to a dull and boring man? For younger women in the audience we can only marvel at the suffocating lack of opportunity for women in the 1950s but even today the playing field remains uneven. Some things have sadly not changed – as the MeToo movement and rape statistics reveal, that even empowered women continue to be targets of sexual assault.
Turning being a victim into a survivor is portrayed in quite an extraordinary scene – one of the most powerful scenes I have experienced in the theatre – where Alice’s older self takes over the acting and reveals to the younger Alice how to deal with men who feel it is their right to ‘get what you want’. Without giving away any spoilers here, this scene alone is worth the ticket price.
The script grew in strength from the cringe-worthy scenes, in the beginning, acts to a play that was strongly powerful and deeply moving. Early scenes were so embarrassingly awkward that I wanted to hide behind my hands and it is credit to the standard of the writing and the acting that this came across so well. The Confessions is poignant funny, and very true to life. It is a play of emotional depth and psychological sensitivity. Both male and female characters are very well drawn, the men as imprisoned by toxic masculinity as women are oppressed by it. If I had not known that the playwright was male, I would have assumed The Confessions was written by a woman, so sensitive is the writing to the female experience.
The play often says more by saying less, allowing the audience to join up the dots and enabling the characters to ‘speak’ with gesture, movement and facial expression. An example of this is the character of Jacob, born in pre-war Vienna and who simply states that his childhood was spent moving around before arriving post-war in the UK. The audience understands what has happened to him because his trauma is present in his awkward laugh, his body language and his physical and psychological discomfort. This style of play relies on a very strong cast, many of whom play several roles.
For all that is unsaid, this is a play full of wonderful dialogue – it runs to just under two hours and I could have sat for a further hour, so engrossed did I feel in this story of a woman emerging, growing into herself, wounded and yet rising up to find her voice with which she discovers how to make choices and assert them.
The staging (Marg Horwell) is unusual – a stage within a stage, sets of curtains revealing earlier stages of life and perhaps also layers of experience. At points, the very bones of the set are revealed as the crew set about deconstructing the set when relationships implode and constructing a new set as Alice’s environment changes. These scene changes are accompanied by music composed by Yannis Philippakis, an adolescent friend of the playwright, which adds a soundtrack at times jarring and at others moving and inspiring, reflecting Alice’s emotional state. The costumes track the passing of the decades with a great array of clothing.
Every performance is strong from this cast but special mention must go to the younger and older Alice (Eryn Jean Norvill and Amelda Brown) as well as Pamela Rabe who plays three women with gusto, She has a fabulous set of lines to work with and delivers them with consummate comic timing or spite or compassion as her range of characters requires.
The Confessions is a play that left me pondering on my relationship with my mother, and my own life experiences and choices. Zeldin wants us each to feel this play is about our lives and it has certainly had this effect on me.
The Confessions runs at the Lyttelton Theatre until 4 November 2023
National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX