Set in juxtaposition to the ornate fastenings of the Wyndham Theatre (described by another theatre-goer as, ‘Like being on the Titanic’), the stage is encompassed by white clinical tiles that appear so fresh and clean you can almost smell the bleach. Yet as the initial curtain rises, we find ourselves watching the final scene of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” in which Nina declares herself to be a seagull, an actress then a seagull once again. The woman on stage begins to spiral out of control, teetering on a both a literal and proverbial edge, while the actor playing Treplev reaches out for her whilst calling out for ‘Emma.’ With a thunderous bang, the stage and its characters are stripped of their previous truths and are plunged into a rave. Lights are flashing, the bass is deep and throbbing, and Emma is flailing. This is a story about the construction of a construction, a story in which both the characters and the audience are acutely questioning the authenticity of the artifice, while simultaneously probing into our own (un)conscious acceptance, or denial, of responsibility.
In its questioning of what we perceive to be real(ity), Duncan Macmillan creates a parents’ worst nightmare – ‘Emma’, played brilliantly by Denise Gough, is a thirty-something, intellectually-restless narcissist in rehab for various substance abuse(s) following multiple blackouts and a suicide attempt. A sceptic of the programme, she cites the work of Foucault, Baudrillard and the like in her argument to live on the fringes of society’s comfortably banal existence. Her derisive questioning of this supposed truth leads Barbara Marten, as the doctor, to quip, ‘So you’re an addict because of postmodernism.’
While poking fun at postmodernism, the play itself is very much contingent on postmodern techniques that can be experienced both visually and through the dialogue. The emergence of multiple ‘Emmas’, the use of strobe lighting and projections, as well as ‘Emma’s’ unreliable character, heightens our understanding of fragmentation and hyperreality. Macmillan also plays our idealisation of the theatre as a place to escape through the literal shattering of the fourth wall, without ever addressing the audience, as well as ‘Emma’s’ profession as an actress.
Especially for those who have ever faced impending adulthood, or rather for those still avoiding the responsibility of it, People, Places & Things resonates in the most terrifying parts of our psyche. Watching it is addicting as we find ourselves projecting our own past traumas onto the scenes unfurling on stage. An electrifyingly jarring evening, definitely see People, Places & Things before the end of its extended performances on the 18th of June.