Hampstead theatre’s new Artistic Director Edward Hall opened his first season at the North London venue last night with the premiere of Shelagh Stephenson’s dark and philosophical thriller Enlightenment.
The premise for Stephenson’s play is one that many in the audience will be able to relate to, making it all the more terrifying. Almost as a modern rite of passage, children leave school and a brave percentage fly the nest, not to their first job or university, but across the world seeking an adventure and the chance to live independently on a diet of cheap beer and noodles. In a world of Skype, email and iPhones, someone in Angkor is as contactable as a friend across London. But what happens when these lines of communication suddenly go dead?
This is the horrific position parents Lia and Nick find themselves in. Six months without contact from their 20-year-old son, the only information they have is the last email from him outlining his next day’s plan, a few month-old sightings from hostels across South East Asia and Australia and the knowledge that a bomb went off in Bali – where he may or may not have been – killing an untold amount of locals and travellers.
Julie Graham as the heartbroken mother is painfully compelling as she breaks down repeatedly on stage, stuck in limbo and unable to let go of a son who may have fallen prey to numerous fates. Richard Clothier as her husband is equally trapped in the cycle of hope and despair, helpless to provide comfort to Lia and pushed away by her obsessive thoughts. Lia enlists the help of an eternally optimistic psychic, desperately clinging on to the thought that her son might be in Venezuela or surfing somewhere rather than murdered by the terrorists she sees so clearly in her nightmares.
Stephenson’s play is not only a gripping thriller, it also attempts to be a metaphysical study on human nature. Lia constantly obsesses over whether letting her son travel to countries she sees as having been ‘screwed’ by Westerners was the right thing to do, whether it would be better if he had been killed for personal or non-personal motives and how to deal with horror and tragedy when it leaps off from newspaper headlines and into your living room. When a ruthless TV producer – played by a salacious and utterly distasteful Daisy Beaumont – enters their lives, Lia’s questions get deeper and darker as their lives are thrown even more off kilter.
Hall’s direction is elegant and classic and is mirrored by a minimalist set that brings the story to life. Completely white, the curved structure is used as a screen for projections that vary from realistic clouded skies to surreal, nightmarish evenings and the shadows of a boy wearing a backpack, coming close to the house and its occupants, then cruelly pulling away again.
When the word ‘metaphysical’ is used in relation to a play, people might instantly be put off, but Enlightenment is not a taxing night at the theatre. While Graham and Clothier’s performances are as heart wrenching and troubled as they should be, the audience is drawn into the story without ever needing to think or really contemplate any of the ethical questions raised. Stephenson’s play, however, is compelling and full of twists and turns that will satisfy even the least shockable theatregoer.