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April 23, 2014 2:26 pm
Mike Bartlett is one man, but he appears to contain two playwrights. There’s the Bartlett who produces audacious, wide-ranging epics – such as Earthquakes in London and the brilliant King Charles III (currently playing at the Almeida Theatre). Then there’s the Bartlett who writes incisive, intimate, closely focused dramas about personal relationships – such as My Child and Cock . An Intervention comes from the pen of the second Bartlett. It’s short, tight and played by just two actors.
It follows too in the footsteps of his earlier short plays in that it scrutinises the messy end of love. In My Child, the focus was a divorcing couple and their child. Cock concentrated on romantic love. Here friendship is under the spotlight.
The text is delivered as five duets, played out by two characters identified simply as A and B. They can be taken by actors of any age, ethnicity or gender. In James Grieve’s staging (a co-production for Paines Plough and the Palace Theatre), they are a youngish man and woman – which naturally introduces slightly different tensions than if, for example, they were two elderly male friends. The point is that friendship is prey to universal problems. The title of the play refers to world affairs (ie military intervention), over which the two friends fall out – but it also indicates those moral sticking points we all encounter. If one friend embarks on an unwise course, should the other intervene?
Several such dilemmas arise in An Intervention as A and B, played with great wit and spark by Rachael Stirling and John Hollingworth, spar their way through increasingly dark exchanges. Stirling plays A, the bubbly, argumentative party animal, and touchingly conveys that her bright, fizzing energy and gung-ho drinking are covers for loneliness and vulnerability. Hollingworth, more staid and composed, complements her beautifully. They subtly trace the way that both characters, after falling out, shift into more extreme versions of their former selves.
Beckett and Coward (as in Private Lives ) hover around this tragicomic double act, as does the tradition of Vaudeville comedy duos. The structure feels a little too strategic and the play is not as brilliantly, unnervingly perceptive as Cock. But it has Bartlett’s astute wit and extraordinary ability to pinpoint the way maturity can suddenly slip away. It asks what we really want from friendship and it also, despite all the wrangling on view, succeeds in catching the nebulous, shifting nature of love.
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