The Royal Court Upstairs is completely stripped down for Nathaniel Martello-White’s new play. Instead of a traditional theatre space, it now resembles a community centre hall. The walls are white and empty; tea and coffee facilities stand to one side. The audience wander in and sit down on the plastic-backed chairs, while Angel (Adelle Leonce) paces alone, fusses with the layout of the chairs in the centre, or simply sits waiting for her family to arrive. She has brought them together, not for a special occasion, but to lock them in and force them to go through the past and confront the truths they have been hiding from over the years.
The play begins in a whirlwind of confusion – people shout over each other, accusations are thrown out – all before you’ve managed to figure out how they are all related. Time is a malleable thing for Martello-White, twisting and turning in such ways that it becomes extremely difficult to discern what is past, present and perhaps, truth. His bold and cleverly structured script uses deflection and cover up, smoke and mirrors to remind us that there are multiple sides to every story (even within ourselves) and therefore the answers aren’t straightforward. Time is also thematic here. Nanny, the oft-quoted head of the family looms over the proceedings ominously, though she is long dead and her impact on the family not spoken of until the end. In the tense silences, a clock ticks.
The cast is excellent, particularly Indra Ove who gives an astonishing performance as Angel’s guarded mother. Leonce plays the part of Angel well; yet Angel’s character arc seems surprisingly weak. Though she is the one seeking answers for an allegation she made as a child, she seems to come away with very little and nothing changes for her. It is evident that Martello-White has an intimate understanding of human relationships and family dynamics and this is where the strength of the play lies – testing familial bonds, exploring enduring relationships and the things we forgive of those we love. It is fascinating to watch this play out, but at times the endless shouting becomes a tiny bit wearisome. Additionally, the heightened language only half-works: on occasion it is superbly effective, but jars just as often, coming off as unnecessarily ostentatious.
Ultz’s minimal, realistic design is perfect, enabling the space to become wherever the characters are in any given time, whilst also remaining itself an impartial space, almost a kind of purgatory. It is not anyone’s house. There is nothing to hide behind. The brightness of the strip-lighting is startling – we feel like we are amongst a family, rather than observers of theatre, removed from our usual safety of darkness.
Though it can be challenging and often bleak, Torn is a complex, fascinating piece of theatre which astutely explores the damage families do to each other with words, actions, silences and manipulation – and how difficult it is to avoid passing that toxic legacy on.