The back corner of The White Bear’s performance area has been painted with an abstract design. Blocks and strips of cream and gold, geometrically arranged, reach out from the corner to travel part way along the walls. It’s a style that appeals to me. I don’t know exactly what it’s intended to represent, but I admire the craftmanship and savour the impression it makes on my senses.
The rest of the set is naturalistic: a student’s book-heavy desk and some shelving. There are also two rectangular tubes of orange foam which are regularly reconfigured to represent various pieces of furniture throughout the show.
This Bitter Earth is itself a vigorously constructed relationship drama about mismatched young couple Jesse (Martin Edwards) and Neil (Max Sterne). Neil wears his heart on his sleeve and is gregarious and passionate. Jesse, by contrast, has a more solemn demeanour and a definite hint of prickliness to him. Thus are the building blocks of a perfectly serviceable odd couple narrative efficiently assembled. But there’s much more to it than that…
Neil is a rich white boy with supportive liberal parents, while Jesse is the black product of Baptists, at university on a scholarship, writing this thesis and dabbling in plays. Thus is the relationship enriched and the potential for dramatic conflict increased. But there’s more…
Neil is a dedicated supporter of Black Lives Matter, a fervent “ally” who attends protests and rallies for the cause. Jesse, to say the least, isn’t similarly engaged, and this fascinating dichotomy provides the political meat of the play. We’re challenged to react to the contrast of one person sincerely campaigning against injustices that don’t directly affect him, while his boyfriend seems resolutely reluctant to fight his own corner.
The couple’s political differences form the most significant stress point in an otherwise almost fairytale romance. Plays dealing in opposing ideologies can often devolve into two people shouting their contrasting convictions at each other across the stage, but Harrison David Rivers’ script is smarter than that. We witness Jesse and Neil butting heads, but the tension is always relayed through the prism of their love. Here the production is bolstered by the skill and chemistry of the two performers: Edwards presents Jesse as a complex mystery whose spells of moroseness may or may not be self-inflicted, while as the more easily loveable Neil, Sterne emanates sincerity even as the text pulls at the threads of his white privilege.
With a structure that returns several times to a key dramatic incident while elsewhere hopping around the couple’s timeline, This Bitter Earth for the most part expertly keeps the pace and engagement at highly satisfying levels – kudos to director Peter Cieply for effortlessly conducting a sophisticated script, keeping the story relatable through its narrative twists and turns. I didn’t quite get the stylised movement episodes, but they were brief enough not to distract.
The play ends with a foreshadowed tragedy that was bound to be moving but was made remarkable by the fact that one of the actors seems to be crying real tears. I can’t remember the last time I saw that, if I ever have.
Ultimately, there are questions which This Bitter Earth doesn’t answer, but like abstract art, perhaps that’s part of the point: if it resonates with you, just take that experience away and gain sustenance from it without interrogating everything about it.
Written by: Harrison David Rivers
Directed by: Peter Cieply
Produced by: Storefront Theatre and Sarah Lawrie
This Bitter Earth plays at White Bear Theatre until 11 March. Further information and bookings can be found here.