Jacob Freda experiences the depths of Collingwood Woodplayers production of ‘Blackbird’.

I would be hard pressed to say that I enjoyed watching Blackbird. Indeed, I would have to question the mental state of anyone who came out of David Harrower’s play about paedophilia and its consequences with a great big grin on their face. It is simply not a play one ‘enjoys’. Instead, it is a piece of theatre that seeks to challenge the audience, to subvert yet also validate their prejudices, encouraging, outright daring them to feel sympathy towards a figure that they should rationally detest. It is therefore a very risky choice for a student production, and so it is especially impressive that Woodplayers’ production of the play, led by director Lowri Mathias, is able to engage with its mature subject matter on such a nuanced level.

The story follows Ray, an office worker in his 50s, being confronted by Una, a woman whom he had a sexual relationship with when she was 12 years old. Bitter and confused at the pain he caused her, she confronts her abuser who insists that he acted out of love, attempting to differentiate himself from the “sick” paedophiles who he insists act purely out of predatory lust.

There are times when we are genuinely led to believe the sincerity of Ray’s misguided love, only for his victim to shatter such romantic illusions by detailing the ways he physically violated her. In this sense, we get a fascinating dichotomy between abuser and victim, both arguing for the pain they received and both trying to rationalise the past.

Harrower’s dialogue is heavily naturalistic, with characters frequently talking over each other and repeating lost phrases of speech or stuttering when tripping over themselves. It is to the actors’ immense credit that this never appears forced or artificial, and this is aided by the intimacy of the theatre space, which is small enough to allow the actors to speak at a normal conversational volume and still be perfectly heard. This does unfortunately have the added effect of emphasizing the redundancy of some of the play’s shoutier moments.

The action takes place within a filthy office breakroom, filled to the brim with empty crisp packets and chocolate wrappers. A bin sits in the corner, overflowing with rubbish, perhaps echoing the mess that Ray’s actions have caused which, much like the litter that populates the set, is impossible to simply sweep away. At the back of the stage is a translucent black curtain, which office workers occasionally walk behind. This staging is largely extraneous, and serves to distract from the dialogue rather than add anything particularly meaningful.

Given the lack of action and cast of two, Blackbird’s success relies heavily on its actors, who are luckily more than capable of rising to the challenge. James Southall is absolutely spellbinding as Ray, his stance and facial expressions always indicating a deep sense of shame and horror as he flits seamlessly between a complex array of emotions. One of the most shocking elements of the play is that we are at times led to sympathise with the abuser, which Southall is able to achieve masterfully through the immense pain he conveys when faced with the suffering his crime has caused – we know he deserves this confrontation, yet pity him all the same.

We are never left to feel this too long, however, as Anna Donkin’s Una frequently undercuts notions of sympathy with the brutal reality of her abuse. Donkin must be praised for her memory if nothing else: one of her monologues is a whopping ten pages long, and stretches uninterrupted over what feels like a quarter of an hour. I could have done with a little more movement during this speech, however, as it can get a bit static, though it is testament to Donkin’s ability as an actor that I never once felt bored during her lengthy monologue.

There were times, however, when the acting bordered on shouty, which felt unnecessary given the intimacy of the space. At times I also felt that Donkin didn’t truly engaged with the emotional ambiguity of her character, instead presenting one emotion at a time which led to some of her delivery appearing a touch flat. I have no doubt that this complexity will develop with time, and perhaps a slightly longer rehearsal period would have helped to unpick these ambiguities. Regardless, the brevity of the rehearsal period (a mere 2 weeks) makes both actors’ expert characterisation a very impressive feat.

In short, Lowri Mathias has managed to craft a highly emotive production that tangles with an unspeakable subject matter in a sophisticated, mature way. With her actors, she is able to convey both Ray’s horror and humanity, while always keeping the human cost of child abuse in the back of the audience’s mind.

Blackbird will be playing in the Mark Hillery Arts Centre at 2:30pm on Sunday 23rd June and at 7:30pm on Monday 24th June.

Photographs: Olivia Parsons.