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A painful, powerful play about a former couple brought back together nine years after their child’s death
Grey carpet. Vending machine coffee in a perilously flimsy cup. Two benches. Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans’ play ‘Poison’ is a minutely realistic look at the oddly colourless nature of grieving, and the grim concrete structures that 21st-century secular society builds around it.
It’s set in a cemetery meeting room, where a couple are undergoing a painful reunion. Nine years ago, he walked out on her following the death of their child. She’s spent years tending their son’s grave, trapped in a grief-induced limbo. He’s moved on. Orange Tree artistic director Paul Miller’s production makes the deliberate simplicity of this play clear, framing a strong, richly drawn pair of performances. Claire Price mingles desperation and resourcefulness: she’s witty, and angry, and lost in a kind of bitter fatalism. Played by Zubin Varla, her former partner is unworldly and distant, meeting her grief with philosophical abstraction. Accordingly, I spent huge portions of the play fuming at him. What kind of stone cold bastard leaves his suffering wife without a word, then waltzes back in nine years later expecting a sober debrief?
But Vekemans’ play is evenhanded, too, showing how grief can close people off, as well as opening up wells of misery. He’s found a kind of philosophical code he can live by, and resents his ex-partner’s miserable worldview. By colliding two positions, Vekemans shows how grief necessarily opens up ideological chasms between people. Abstract questions about fate, and whether bad things happen for a reason, become as real and practical as debates on how best to load the dishwasher.
Vekemans’ approach is uncompromisingly naturalistic, and as comfortless as a vending machine brew. I didn’t always like it, and found myself getting frustrated at the remorseless way this couple pick away at each others’ grief. Hours later, it was still annoying me. And throwing up new thoughts, too, about unhappiness and how we make sense of disastrous events without the frame of faith or tradition. Which probably means that as painful as ‘Poison’ is, it’s also pretty damn good.