A Curious Bystander
Looking like two young, blood drenched, Miss Havishams, in their shabby and dirt stained wedding dresses, two women sit, each tied to a chair, in what appears to be a blood spattered abattoir. All around them lights flicker in the half dark as hooks loom ominously overhead. Meanwhile, a cranked up Nine Inch Nails’ The Idea Of You, mercilessly assaults the senses. The initial set up strongly suggests, “What Put The Blood,” by Frances Poet, is about to deliver some heavy-duty material. And given that it takes Racine’s blood fuelled tragedy Andromaque as its jumping off point, pulling no punches would certainly seem to be the only way to go. Yet if “What Put The Blood” gets off to a somewhat promising start, it’s a promise it ultimately fails to deliver on. It might want to have all the power, ferocity, and kick of a mosh pit at an industrial metal gig, but in the end “What Put The Blood” feels like the theatrical equivalent of a Marilyn Manson tribute band, a pale imitation of the pale emperor himself, talking all passionately fierce and ferocious, but having little real bite.
Referencing Euripides and Virgil, by way of Racine, “What Put The Blood” follows two women being interrogated following an unspecified event. An event that appears to have occurred at both of their weddings. With the post-Trojan context of the original Andromaque sacrificed for a rather lackluster ‘King of the North versus King of the South’ scenario, “What Put The Blood” opts to replace well-known Greek characters with unimaginative names like Red, Hammer, and Shadow. Yet the story retains essential key ingredients. Hermione, spoiled daughter of the victorious King, and awarded as a bride prize to his warrior, Red, looks forward to her approaching nuptials, having a penchant for bad boys who know, and take, whatever it is they want. Except Red has begun to develop a more than passing interest in Andromaque, faithful wife of his slain opponent, Hammer, and devoted mother to her young son, who she will do anything to protect. As events unfold, choices have to be made as love and hate go to war in the name of power. But will it all end in death and tragedy, or will it all have amounted to nothing more than a big lead up to what is basically a pain in the arse?
Along with an unimaginative context, and a hugely dissatisfying ending, “What Put The Blood” suffers from some poor use of language. Despite its often poetic stylings, this is not the language of ferocious primal forces, animal passions, suspense, or even tension. Weak phrases, such as those describing a young child clutching its mother’s leg for fear she’ll float off like a balloon, never conjure the blood, dread, or thunder, “What Put The Blood” aspires to, and the danger just simply isn’t there as a result. Which is a pity, for once Poet gets past her countless “I am,” and constrictive structural inhibitions, and into more concretely direct language, “What Put The Blood” hints at what was lost. Never more so than when the world weary Hermione, beautifully conveyed by Lucianne McEvoy, lets her spoiled brat entitlement just say it as she sees it, directly and without adornment. Or when the defiant Andromaque, wonderfully realized by Julie Rodgers, faces the repeated and direct challenge of ‘prove it.’ At such all too rare moments, something primal and visceral almost emerges, as the script momentarily squares up to look something really dangerous directly in the eye, before quickly averting its gaze. As a result, even though both women are trapped and tortured, any sense that either is in any real or imminent danger simply isn't there.
In the absence of real power behind the words, it’s left to performances, set, and design to compensate. Thankfully Graham McLaren’s abattoir styled simplicity is imbued with a much needed undercurrent of menace and power, which Sinéad McKenna’s fractured lighting design, and Matt Padden’s pounding sound design beautifully support. With both Lucianne McEvoy’s Hermione, and Julie Rodgers’ Andromaque, delivering alternating monologues from a fixed position throughout, Katie Davenport’s exceptional costumes go a long way to creating much needed context, and filling in many unknown blanks, allowing McEvoy and Rodgers, under McLaren’s astute direction, to both deliver engagingly strong performances.
Brave in places, “What Put The Blood” never really goes far enough, deep enough, nor wild enough. Like its characters, “What Put The Blood” feels like it has been tied down a little too tightly, and is not quite sure of what exactly is going on. In the end, “What Put The Blood” feels less like a tale full of fight and wild animal passion, and more like a tale retold by someone who heard it from someone, who heard it from a curious bystander at a street fight they themselves weren’t directly involved in. There’s too far a remove between what “What Put The Blood” purports to address and what it actually delivers. Even so, performances are both strong, and its design top class right across the board.
“What Put The Blood” by Frances Poet, directed by Graham McLaren, runs at The Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre until November 4th
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