Walking in to the BT studio to see Attempts on Her Life, the set was bare apart from six actors seated on chairs opposite the L-shaped bank of audience seating, and a large number of numbered envelopes and bags suspended from the ceiling. Thus began the enigma of this production of Martin Crimp’s play.
The play is comprised of a series of group scenes of varying sizes, from all six actors involved to single monologues. There seemed to be little connection between the scenes except for references to Annie, or Anushka, Anya, Anne. The characters seemed to be searching for this elusive girl in the same way that the audience searched to make meaning and coherence from the scenes we were presented with. Indeed, by the end, the audience was clapping between each scene, making it harder to believe that it was a continuous performance rather than a series of sketches.
All of the actors demonstrated impressive dexterity in their acting, creating new characters for each scene whilst using their body language and subtle, knowing glances between them to suggest another layer of character that ran underneath and through the individual tableaux. Calam Lynch was especially strong in this respect, taunting and jeering at Imo Reeve-Tucker’s character from their seating and leering at the sinister dance routine from the female characters, responding to what was being performed ‘on stage’. I really wanted to know more about the characters who were being forced to enact the scenes called out by the horror-film style voice: the relationships between them, why they were there, and if they knew each other, and felt Calam’s performance went the furthest in hinting at this.
Imo equally responded well to the provocation of the other characters, as we got the impression that she was the victim of the group. There were lots of parallels to be drawn between the scenes in Attempts and various reality TV shows and competitions; at times I almost expected Imo to be called out as “the weakest link” as her performance skillfully showed a growing resentment and frustration with the other characters in what appeared to be a competition between them. In fact I felt the acting from everyone was at its strongest in the final tableau when all six characters worked each other up into a hysteria that culminated in breaking down into mad laughter, perhaps because the joke was on us, the audience, who left still unsure if we were meant to understand what was going on.
Will Stevens and Mary Higgins both demonstrated an impressive range of accents from cut-glass English to American deep south that were so convincing that I could not say for sure what their true voice, if indeed any of these characters had a true voice, would be. Will also responded well to the minimal lighting, always ensuring that he was directly in the spotlight, which the other actors would also do well to follow, as it was sometimes difficult to concentrate on their performance when they stood just outside of the spotlight centre. I would have liked to see more variation with lighting, as with such a minimal set the mood was created almost entirely through light, and the most effective scene was that where the stage was bathed in a sinister red glow. That said, I really liked the use of torches that suggested power play between the characters, particularly when a torch suspended from the lighting rig represented a single bulb swinging in time with the questions fired in an interrogation scene.
In such an intimate venue, a certain amount of audience involvement is to be expected, and Cassian’s performance played on this, serenading one of the front row audience members and maintaining fierce eye contact with others. I was impressed at both his and Mary’s ability to charm the audience into laughter only to reduce them to stunned silence seconds later. Mary’s monologue, performed whilst draped in the American flag, was dazzling as she painted the scene for us with only her voice and use of the stage space.
However for me the stand out performance came from Maddy Walker who flicked from tears to acerbic smiles, leaving us unsure whether she was victim or villain, showing the way you can never really know what lies under the surface. In ‘The Camera Loves You’ routine, it was her fixed, unnerving smile that suggested to me that this was an indictment of the exploitative media industry and its damaging effect on young women and girls, more than just a sinister dance.
Credit must go to director Archie Thompson for pulling off such an ambitious production. Clearly careful consideration has gone into how to extract the most meaning from each scene and implying connections to modern society. From TV remotes to Eastpack rucksacks to Evian water bottles, all gave the audience glimpses of the real world, allowing us to connect the scenes to those familiar from the media, making us aware of our role as voyeurs who take as entertainment what really ought to be causing alarm. My only criticism would be that the way some of the interrogation scenes were set up meant one character had his back to the audience and thus it was difficult to hear their lines and judge their response to the other characters. However this is a minor point that could be easily rectified by changing the position of the chairs.
Overall I would thoroughly recommend Attempts on Her Life both as a display of some of the best acting in Oxford and as a reminder of the suggestive power of theatre for both parodying and critiquing the real world, or rather, the reality world, which is all too easily accepted as simply entertainment. This is not a performance that you will leave satisfied with by plot, character development and a happy ending, but rather one that will leave you thinking about what you have seen long after the stage has cleared, questioning yourself and others about the meaning, if there is one, of the play and how we should respond to such a damning portrait of modern relationships and society.
Image // Hester Styles Vickery.