For 15 years now, Debbie Tucker Green has been tackling the rawest and most difficult issues facing people in modern society with a wry, elliptical poetry that provokes gentle laughter as it shocks. Though the dilemmas that she raises are profound, there is never the sense that audiences are being lured into a debate. Quite the reverse – we become eavesdroppers on a conversation that first tantalises us with its absurdity, before expanding into a finely-drawn portrait of individuals’ suffering. It is the intimacy of what she does that astounds you: it plays again and again in your head like a song, gently hypnotising you at the same time as it awakens you to a world of horror.
‘Hang’, her latest play – which she also directs – is an extraordinary work, and heralds an exciting maturation of her elliptical style. It satirises bureaucracy in the most extreme circumstances: a black woman is greeted by two officials in a soulless interview room as she prepares to exact revenge on a criminal who has torn her family apart. There’s a taut Kafkaesque absurdity to their banter: Claire Rushbrook’s brilliant, inappropriately jaunty official babbles about herbal tea, Ikea coat racks, and the importance of proper glasses for water. As her horrifyingly naïve sidekick, Shane Zaza provokes shocked laughter with his management consultant-speak about death.
Yet it is Marianne Jean-Baptiste – here simply dubbed ‘Three’ (the others are ‘One’ and ‘Two’) – who controls the stage. Huddled in her coat, imploding with hatred, she makes you feel her rage simply through the way she drinks a glass of water. She is both recognisably modern and a figure from a Greek tragedy; though we never know the precise details of what happened, we are in no doubt about the extent to which it has ravaged her family. In one of the most moving passages of the evening, she describes the impact of the crime on ‘my open-faced, open-hearted nine-year-old son snapped shut, shut down in seconds after seeing…’
Tucker Green, like many great wordsmiths, can make you feel the inadequacy of language at the same time as she manipulates it brilliantly. On the dark set, dominated by striplights, we see a portrait of hell on earth emerge that, for all its horrors, is one of her most compelling yet.