Review: 'Attempts On Her Life'
Review by Paige Meintzer, photography by Lightbox.
I had no idea what to expect from Martin Crimp’s Attempts On Her Life, as directed by Joanna Bowman. Having read the description in the festival’s programme, I was expecting a rather conventional play centered around a search for the cause of a woman’s death. However, these expectations were immediately thwarted in a pleasantly unexpected way.
Upon entering the theatre, the audience was met with a recording of one of the play’s upcoming scenes titled ‘Faith in Ourselves’ in which incongruous phrases, such as ‘Let’s just say the trees have names’ were repeated. This introduction, which was played out before the show had officially begun, was my first intimation that the play wouldn’t be entirely conventional. It dawned on me then that my fellow playgoers were whispering about whether or not the audience would have to participate in the play, since there were no visible props on the stage. I started to experience the anxiety one feels when they find that they are participating in something they hadn’t even signed themselves up for. (But maybe my stress caused by unexpected social situations is a bit excessive when compared with other people). However, it was not participation that the audience would experience, but more an indirect engagement with the actors who were, in fact, seated amongst us in the audience.
The relationship between actors and the audience was deliberately ambiguous. The actors’ heated conversation within the audience space caused the stage to internalise itself, penetrating the distance which usually exists between actors and audience members in the form of a ‘fourth wall’. Yet, despite the choice to fuse the actors into the auditorium, the audience was not able to engage in the conversation surrounding them.
The lights went off and then flashed back on almost immediately. From the back of the audience, the dialogue began. The creative discussion gave the impression of a group of writers in a boardroom spontaneously constructing a narrative rather than dissecting the circumstances of a death. This idea was conveyed particularly through the continued use of the phrase, ‘as it were’. The first scenario (of seventeen) was titled, a ‘Tragedy of Ideology and Love’ and introduced an unseen character described as a strong-willed, physically perfect blonde woman who sounded too ideal to exist. Three actors, positioned at different spots in the audience, talked passionately amongst themselves about the details of a scenario involving a fight the blonde woman had with her lover in an indeterminate hotel and city.
Yet, despite its ambiguities, this scenario, as the audience would soon realize, is perhaps the most straightforward of the seventeen. The actors (there is a different set for each scenario) went on to present a multitude of situations in no particular setting, which all seemed to involve the character of the woman first introduced, named either ‘Anne’, ‘Annie’ or ‘Anya’. Meanwhile, the lights flashed off and on between each scene, so that the actors could sit down and get up for their respective roles. The scenarios appeared abstract and unconnected, one being an apparent advertisement for a French car called “the Anny”, revealing perhaps a postmodernist rejection of fixed identity. Whilst all of this is happening, black and white photos of the actors who featured in the scene were projected onto a wall behind the stage, expressing different emotions and reminding us, perhaps, of their position, both in the play and away from it, as very real people, directly and heavily impacted by the lives and deaths of those close to them.
Even in trying to decipher the circumstances of this murder (or suicide) and coming to no very firm conclusion, the play also addresses issues of gender, pornography and racial violence. Although, perhaps, Attempts On Her Life is not an entirely successful examination of the murder which it is centered around, it is, however, an indirectly successful examination of many complex social issues.
The actors all proved incredibly passionate and emotive when speaking about their connections to the woman on whom the play was focused. I found, however, Shonagh Smith’s performance to be particularly effective, especially as the voice of the enigmatic advertiser of the ‘Annie’ automobile, in which she rapidly churned out statements in French, such as that no one will be shot, killed, lied to or terrorized in the back of the ‘Annie’, and that its seats will not be soiled by melted chocolate in a happy, artificial voice to chilling yet extraordinary effect.
The play ended with the actors all rising in the theatre’s semi-darkness to shoot confetti over the audience and in the direction of the stage - an action equally as jarring as the play itself. While I was left in a state of mild confusion both then and now as to the play’s purpose, I would highly recommend seeing it at some point for being entirely unpredictable and thought-provoking throughout.