Attempts on Her Life
At Studio 58 until Oct. 14
Tickets: 604-684-2787, ticketstonight.ca
I think we’re hardwired for narrative. We love telling stories and hearing stories; we like beginnings, middles and endings. It makes up for the randomness that actually underscores our lives. Who gets born in Canada, who in Rwanda; who gets cancer and who doesn’t—in spite of smoking for 50 years; who gets hit by a bus, lives through an earthquake, gets stabbed by a home invader or wins Lotto 6/49. We go to the theatre, watch a movie or TV partly for the brief, comforting experience of what director Katrina Dunn, in her program notes, calls “the uniformity and cohesion of narrative.”
British playwright Martin Crimp trashes all of that in Attempts on Her Life. We never see Anne, the main character. We don’t even know if she’s alive, dead or even existed. She’s variously referred to as Anna, Annie or Anoushka. In one scene, she’s even a car—the Anny. Or a rock b(Anne)d. Various languages are spoken. In 17 different, unconnected scenarios we get a glimpse of who she might have been: someone’s daughter or sister, a porn star, a world traveller, a murder victim, a suicide.
Not only do we not know who Anne is but we can’t be sure about the other characters, either. They are nameless and are only defined by the various roles they play; if two performers speak as if they are or were Anne’s parents, then we can assume they are her parents. But maybe not. If a guy appears to be making a movie about Anne, maybe he is. But he’s probably not.
Nothing is linear, nothing is absolute and we are on very shaky ground.
Attempts on Her Life is also stylistically all over the place from seemingly “real” to absolute farce. In the scenario titled “Kinda Funny,” there’s an airline pilot who goes sweetly and earnestly on and on about a book he’s reading and then goes off on a rant about “faggots, abortionists and Jews.” This scene is juxtaposed with scenes of various erotic couplings. It’s all over the place. It’s a dog breakfast. It’s not what theatre usually is. Where are character development, plot, crisis and resolution?
This does not make for comfortable theatre. Playwright Crimp said it was “a play that pulled plays apart” and it certainly shreds all to bits Aristotle’s notion of drama.
What keeps us from walking out? The fun of watching young performers wrestle with this difficult material? Or some compelling suspicion that what we think of as our essential self is, like Anne’s, merely a construct and that if we hang in there long enough, Attempts on Her Life—and by extension our life—will all begin to make sense?
Director Dunn gets committed work from these 15 students who may, like most under-30s, be more comfortable with non-linearity than those of us raised on books and Shakespeare: the page-turning generation.
David Roberts’ set is equally and appropriately ambiguous: it could be an airline waiting room, a courtroom, a film studio or a detention centre. Darren Boquist at times lights the sets with cellphones held in the performers’ hands—another nod to our world spinning so fast there may not be time for storytelling. And Kathleen McDonagh turns the car commercial scene, “The New Anny,” into a smartly choreographed dance.
For me, the biggest pay-off probably came upon reflection after the show when I began thinking about my desire for linear development of a story. It reminded me of a remark made condescendingly by a New Music aficionado to a friend of mine: “Oh, you want melody.” Yes, I like plot even though I know life is not like that.
This is tough material given a good airing by Dunn, cast and crew. Read the program notes and then see how comfortable you are with Crimp’s experiment.