Carey Mulligan first rose to prominence when she was 19, playing a narcoleptic teenager on the same stage she now conquers as an abandoned single mother. Dennis Kelly’s new play, which premiered last month, is a masterful exploration of the internal life of a woman who fights all her own battles. The play, which flits between confessional chat and imaginative, almost mime-like, domestic scenes, works so well with a design by Es Devlin.
With the set hidden by a blue screen, Mulligan talks openly to us about how she met her husband in an EasyJet queue in Naples, and ‘took an instant dislike to him’. She is attracted to the way he wittily sees off two pushy models, joking that they clearly just want to sleep with him. It is from here that the play’s forceful questions regarding gender and sexual relations takes hold. Both Mulligan’s character and her husband are unnamed, simply a stereotypical young couple. But, as the screen is raised, we realise this relationship is far from ordinary. Es Devlin’s set is basic but incredibly effective, the living room and kitchen are seamlessly attached, and painted in a stark, cold hue of teal – the sofa faces us, the subject of the play, us. It is this you can’t get away from, Mulligan spends the play making comments and sharp aphorisms which make you squirm in your seat.
As Mulligan moves through the unrealistic layout of painted chairs and books, it is obvious she is living in an unreal, dream world, in her own individual imagination, lacking in any diversity or character.
Kelly cleverly subverts any criticism regarding this, as Mulligan states, ‘I am, of course, just giving you one side… But that’s what happens when you have just one person talking.” It is this self-awareness which makes the play so great, Kelly’s script is completely self-referential, and avoids the all-too-common dilemma of a one person play being too disconcerting, floating above that area of the stage where no action happens. Mulligan’s strength lies in her masterful domineering of the script, she makes every sentence captivating, and the play shifts from laugh-out-loud comedy to unnerving misfortune in matters of seconds. Kelly invites us completely into the mind of his protagonist, and it is when her fortune slips that the play becomes all the more convincing.
Kelly’s script mounts to extreme ideas regarding the nature of violence and power, and it is starkly obvious when Mulligan tells us she is working on a TV doc that seeks to statistically record testosterised aggression, that the subject here is the role of men in power. Her boss is even devising a system that would make it harder for men to gain power, because, as she says, ‘they have always fucked it up.’ The great fuck-up here takes almost 60 minutes to arise, but when it does, the effects are catastrophic. Mulligan charts a family break-down with consummate flair, an her affectation is paralleled by an awareness of her subjective viewpoint. After an hour of playing pretend, chastising the destructive Danny and encouraging the constructive Leanne, she goes as far as saying, ‘of course, I know my children aren’t really here. I am simply recalling memories of them, but I always wonder why it is the destructive one’s that I recall.’ She may be obsessed by violence after the scars fail to fade from the tragic events of the play, otherwise she may have lived in a genuinely violent house. This is where the subjectivity of the memories works so well, we realise that, though the play is not explicitly violent – there is only one person on stage – it insinuates it constantly through the ability to flit though the most destructive parts of a narrative.
Despite the strength of its protagonist, I don’t think Girls & Boys is a feminist play, instead of trying to confront the real world, its protagonist is separate from it. She deals only with loss, not with the potential for gain. In the final stages of the play, she says, “I had thought that the man I loved had changed. But this was so much worse. This was realising that he had never existed in the first place.” While all this is going on she fears she has lost her daughter, Leanne, in a shopping centre, and the pain on her face is immense. It is this which makes the conclusion to the play even more tragic.
But, Girls & Boys may benefit from being called Boys, because as Mulligan’s voice pounds into the audience, the realisation she has is ‘we didn’t create society for men, we created it to stop men.’
Words, Ross Fraser-Smith
Image, Marc Brenner