Marine Furet reviews National Theatre Wales’ Ripples, part of their Network programme of digital work that was launched in response to the Covid lockdown, and finds a play that sits uncomfortably in the current climate.
When future historians look back at the first semester of 2020 in hopes of getting closer to understanding the oddness of these times, the flurry of technological responses to the pandemic will provide them with a readily available archive. All around the world, creators of all feathers have been thinking up new, creative ways of carrying on the important work of narrating our world during this crisis. The virus has atomised social bonds, forcing some of us into complete isolation and locking others in unsafe domestic environments. It has also, in some cases, given way to exemplary instances of solidarity and mutual aid, and to artistic endeavours that only a prolonged stay at home could have rendered necessary or even possible.
The National Theatre Wales’ Network programme is one such enterprise, offering a digital platform to Welsh playwrights, theatre makers, and performers to come together during this crisis. Such collaborations are essential because they perform the work of reparation and healing we urgently need in those times. With this in mind, however, I am unsure that plays of the ilk of Ripples, currently streaming on NTW’s website, are the kinds of products I would want to see airing in a time of lockdown.
Ripples is currently being streamed in a revised version for a digital space, after the cancellation of its stage run due to Covid. Eight men and women take part in an online recovery addiction programme during the pandemic. All eight characters are recovering addicts, attempting to come to terms with their past traumas under the guidance of Joseph (Luke Nunn), himself a former participant in the programme. For the duration of the play, we see the actors exchanging on Zoom, their conversations interspersed with video clips in which the protagonists relive the events that led them to overuse various substances – alcohol, painkillers, sex – to forget the past. In each sequence, a character goes through a pivotal scene and asks another to play the role of a loved one. These moments correspond to a real practice whereby trauma victims are made to perform moments of their past they would otherwise find too difficult to confront. The process as described in Ripples is messy. The participants won’t comply: they fight, they mock or interrupt each other, all reactions one could probably expect to see arising in the space of a group therapy experience. The process of healing is a challenging one, and the play occasionally appears to act out on a micro-scale what the world is currently going through on the macro. I can get behind group therapy as a metaphor for the world coming to terms with Covid. I am not sure, however, that I can enjoy the play’s voyeuristic dissection of addiction over the course of a relentlessly bleak script.
Ripples grapples at length with the issue of pain: how to represent it, how to process it, why we feel it. The characters all gradually reveal themselves to have had to go through traumatic events: death, rape, or assault are just some of the issues brought up by the script. Out of all of the protagonists, only one, Carla, remains less than forthcoming. Her refusal to disclose the reasons for her presence while purporting to be witness to the pain of others becomes glaringly noticeable. Emily John’s interpretation has a compelling lightness of touch. Her secretiveness both frustrates and beguiles, and it is a testament to her skill that it’s not so easy to hate her ambiguously written character. Her presence gradually comes to feel as uncomfortable as my own as a viewer.
Out of all the characters, it is perhaps significant that Carla’s jarringly lyrical monologues are often given significant space as if a complex interiority could only truly express itself in the form of the faux poetic. Her counterparts, by contrast, are left with raw expressions of anguish that make the function of her character appear increasingly ambiguous and eventually predatory. In an episode of Dan Harmon’s show Community, protagonist Troy Barnes, once a popular football player, attempts to join his university’s theatre group by telling a false story of sexual assault to fit in amongst the other actors. His performance is eventually revealed as a sham and forgiven in a parodic, grandiloquent way that points to the dangers of appropriating others’ feelings and trauma by proxy and to the limitations of performance itself. By contrast, Ripples’s attempt at portraying the characters’ predicaments is thoroughly devoid of irony or even distance, but also risks lacking the compassion it promises.
Ripples’ portrayal of pain places its spectators in an uncomfortable position, and it is not always clear whether this is an intended effect or not. In between the sessions, the characters are sometimes seen in the privacy of their bedrooms, sleeping or tending to unknown tasks. Little effort is made to humanise the protagonists beyond their pain, which is flicked on and off like a convenient switch in a way that borders on sensationalism. Zoom functions as an uncomfortable metaphor for surveillance throughout, only the many psychological shortcuts used by the play to portray the characters’ predicaments make it hard to assess whether the metaphor is always a self-aware one. When one, then two of the characters eventually leave in circumstances I will not disclose here, the play then ends with an attempt at reconciliation which feels hasty and forced. The perfunctory mention of the Samaritans at the end of the play offers very meagre consolation.
This is not to say that Ripples is never successful. Tracy Harris’s script touches upon a number of important psychological truths: that it is often harder to forgive ourselves than to forgive others, and that trauma is also a class-ridden issue. All the characters suffer to some degree of feelings of self-hate, which therapy never quite solves. In this way, the play is certainly true to life. The cast, composed of students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, really makes the most of a difficult situation, and their performances are all the more impressive given these highly unusual working conditions. Mark Henry Davies’s performance as Noodles brings a welcome note of humour and forms a compelling duo with Nunn’s character.
After Brexit, a lot of playwrights took current events to task and attempted to share their feelings on stage. The result often revealed the discomfort of writers who struggled to come to terms with the outcome of the vote while fearing to alienate their audience in the process. This was a difficult, hardly tenable position, partly connected to the rush of speaking to an event that was rending the country in two. Hastily adapted to the constraints of the day, Ripples fits uneasily with the experience of grief we are all having to endure at the moment. Grief cannot always have a satisfying ending, structure, or narrative. Here, however, the play’s claustrophobia cuts too close to the bone.
More information about Ripples and the National Theatre Wales’ Network programme can be found here.
Marine Furet is a critic and avid contributor to Wales Arts Review.