To call it Kafkaesque would be, for once, appropriate; to call it soul-scarring might also be true. That it calls your complacency into question—well, that too, and more.
Originally adapted from a radio play, Mike Bartlett’s Contractions is—on the face of it—stark and simple: two women—on of higher status, one lower on the food chain—face each other in an office setting. The stark premise was accentuated in this particular production by some unorthodox—but inspired—staging and tech decisions made by Director Fraser Craig, and pulled off with panache by Producer Elise Gallois. In fact, I have never seen the Barron used better; a spotlit chair faced a floodlit desk at the top of the seating rake, and the audience sat on either side of an avenue between the two. Despite some lighting niggles and considering it was the first night, the technical side of the production was of a high standard, providing the show’s two first-rate actresses a fantastic canvas. My only criticism is that the staging decision made the show a little awkward to watch, the audience constantly having to turn their heads from one character to another. But I am an old man at heart with a neck that needs more yoga. The real problem was that both actresses were so eminently watchable that I couldn’t choose who to look at. It felt like a top-flight tennis match: tight, pacy, and unexpected.
Poised behind the desk at the top of the seating rake (set before the audience came in), Sarah Pollock—as the manager—busied herself with papers, pens and managerial paraphernalia; all that was missing was a Newton’s Cradle. Her adversary is Emma—played with sterling élan and brilliant vulnerability by Charlotte Kelly—whose simple office misdemeanours (falling in love, having sex, being human) brought down upon her the wrath of “the company”, as personified as the practically inhuman Manager. The Manager’s brand of corporate-ese essentiallised and trivialised every argument, every emotion, that Emma—the underling—tried to convey. Corporations may be people, but they are people with terrible social skills and—it appears—no moral compass.
Pollock shone as the manager, a caricature of corporate evil and the robotic inhumanity spawned by her position. Pollock’s balanced performance stopped what could have been a send-up from tipping into the realm of absurdity; it was a masterpiece of self-restraint and an all-round accomplishment. My only available criticism: I was so convinced by her character that I (at first) had trouble speaking to her afterwards. Kelly, as alluded to above, went all out on the emotional stakes, throwing herself at her automaton superior. While this could have backfired into melodrama through juxtaposition with the Manager’s complete facelessness, the contrast was superb and Kelly’s finely balanced performance held the audience’s eyes and emotions in a death-grip.
The office procedural, for one like myself—who has only worked in an office ever so briefly—is a genre replete with associations, none of them good. Echoes of Kafka: the unknowable bureaucracy arcana, the veiled motivations, and the approach to the capricious, uncaring God figure lent sepulchral grace to the final moments of the play; we—as an audience—could understand the what, just never the why. That the audience understood what was happening as the supplicant climbed the step-pyramid to offer her sacrifice, but could not understand the motivation, speaks a volume to the ancient Greek term parrhesia. When Emma spoke out bravely trying to test the limits of the system, the system bit back, exposing new areas of her life for it to govern.
The striking line “the way things are these days…”—a mantra oft repeated about the economy—could be applied equally well to the underlying assumption that we are all Emma, that “these days” we all must make sacrifices to faceless overlords, and that the only way out is to become them, to accept their version of the truth. Socrates died because he spoke against the consensus; none of us “these days” are as strong, we will give up our versions, our emotions, to world where love is defined in triplicate, just because we are told that is what it is, that this is what we are supposed to do.
Photo credits: Elise Gallois