Playwright James Saunders presents us with a classic scenario. A younger couple and an older couple gather together in a living-room, having not seen each other for nine years. Each spouse has cheated with the spouse of the other, and no-one is really sure why they agreed to meet. Chaos ensues; drama is born. This is the first staging of Bodies since 1979. Certainly Saunders is not a playwright I’ve encountered much in my long and lovely affair with drama. After watching Bodies and feeling Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf howling in every corner, I wondered that perpetual wonder; what is it that keeps some playwrights in loud circulation while others fall to quiet?
In the case of Bodies, some might say it has dated badly with the inclusion of a form of therapy popular in the 1970’s, which petered out by the mid ’80s. EST (Erhard Seminars Training), established in 1971 by Werner Erhard, is described as a two-weekend course that aims to ‘transform one’s ability to experience living so that the situations one has been trying to change clear up just in the process of life itself.’ More commonly known as Primal Scream therapy, it involved being shouted at and insulted by other participants and the trainers. Helen and David, the younger couple of Bodies, have completed EST, and Anne and Mervyn are intrigued by the younger couple’s seemingly imperturbable exteriors. It is their shiny veneer that Mervyn seeks to puncture in his fight against the deadening of emotions that EST promotes. Life, and all its desperation, is at the heart of Saunders’s play.
To remain unmoved by life is to fail to experience life as only humans can, but finding meaning will prove ever elusive. Saunders said: “If there’s any theme that runs through my work, it’s the absurdity of finding logic in anything at all.” There is something devastating in Bodies, the title suggestive of massacre; death hovers overhead throughout, as it does in life, though we like to pretend it doesn’t.
There are plays that, when you see them onstage the first time, leave an imprint. The first time you hear Hedda Gabler fire that gun, for example. Bodies so engrossed me, I didn’t realise how engrossed I was until it was over. The enclosed space of The Little in Southwark Playhouse contributes to the feeling that the audience are also guests in the living-room. The confrontations all occur a little too close for comfort, and there is nowhere to hide once it all starts to go wrong. David’s excruciating calm is unavoidable. Helen’s resigned grace catches our eye. Anne’s regal malaise haunts the chaise longue, and we’re in direct line for Mervyn’s fire. All are right there, as though we’ve been brought to bear witness. The awesome foursome of the two couples had the tiny auditorium by the throat, with events culminating in what might just be one of the greatest unspoken lines I’ve heard, and a deeply moving finale.
Author: James Saunders
Director: Tricia Thorns
Booking link: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/bodies/#booking
Box office: 020 7407 0234
Booking until: 9th March 2019