David Eldridge is an elusive writer. Just when you have him pegged, he does something else. When you think he’s a naturalist, he writes Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness; when you think he’s a domestic miniaturist, he gives you Market Boy; when you think he’s all about the blokes, he gives you this: The Knot of the Heart, the most searingly moving new play of the last decade.
Lucy is a fairly obscure children’s TV presenter who is fired when she is discovered smoking heroin. Her life goes into freefall; she starts injecting, she disappears, she’s beaten up and then raped by a dealer. Her mother can’t say no her favourite daughter; her less-favoured sister, Angela, can’t feel sympathy for her plight. She ends up in a crisis centre, which gets her clean, but she relapses several times, returns to the centre and is finally clean when her sordid life is exposed in a sting by a tabloid journalist. It turns out that Lucy’s sister tipped them off; but also, we discover, their father who died when Lucy was less than a year old died because he was an alcoholic and stopped drinking too quickly at the behest of their mother. Lucy seems to realise that it is her mother’s smothering love that has contributed to her problems and decides to put some distance between them. In the final scene, the sisters are in South Africa, a place that feels like heaven.
In the programme, David Eldridge explains that the play emerged, in part, from a conversation with Lisa Dillon (who had been in his Under a Blue Sky in the West End) who said she wanted a play where she’d ‘get to go on a journey like the boys get to go on’. And what a journey this is, through hell to heaven. Through the fourteen scenes of the play we watch her sink from privilege to purgatory, and then crawl slowly back. And the journey back really is slow. A neater playwright might have placed her at rock bottom just before the interval; the turning point, the narrative reversal. But life’s not like that and Eldridge isn’t like that. It’s not being beaten up and raped by her dealer that is the darkest time; it’s finding that you don’t know why you would want to get better. So we see her lapsing, in denial, struggling repeatedly with her mother who enables her habit, filled with dread in the crisis centre, full of sarcastic anger with a psychologist and then, horribly, when she seems finally clean, a lifeline turns out to be a noose. It’s an extraordinary performance by Lisa Dillon, I should say. If she doesn’t win every award going, justice will not have been done. It’s a complete physical transformation she goes through, from the bouncy, young, nervous girl at the beginning through skeletal junkie and recovering addict in denial, to the woman of the end, bathed in the light of an African sun, fearful of the contentedness she is experiencing, reconciled to the end of a certain life.
The apparent subject of the play is drugs, but it’s really a play about telling the truth. Lucy’s character goes from utter self-unawareness into the trickster evasions of the junkie - the first half of scene two is absolutely captivating: Lucy is discovered by her sister about to steal money from her purse. Angela, a lawyer, pursues Lisa unwaveringly, but with each accusation, Lucy bats it aside with a new evasion, a change of subject, a misdirection, a confusion, a lie. It’s extraordinary stuff. Angela is implacably truthful; Lucy implacably mendacious. But every exchange is, in its own way, truthful. There’s nothing emptily writerly about the exchanges; it’s not a word game; it’s richly felt. It’s here you realise that she has crossed a line, that she can no longer act meaningfully in the world. And, of course, her indulgent mother, also (it is suggested) an addict, but of red wine rather than smack, allows her these evasions, deprecating Angela for so coldly seeking the truth.
Lucy’s real journey is from being a self-deceiving liar to being the most truthful person in the play. There is a heartbreaking motif of mother and daughter saying to each other ‘I love you’, beautifully placed in the scenes so that it seems - this is a current obsession of mine - untheatrically direct, just plain and sincere. But what David then does is terribly clever, because he gets you to understand that even the purest sincerity can be emotionally misguided, deceived. In - for me - the most devastating sequence in a wholly devastating play he has Lucy and her mother telling each other ‘I love you’ in their garden, over and over, the words shaking free of meaning, their importance just a memory. I felt the whole audience hold its breath; this was a brutal exchange.
In this, David Eldridge, a great interpreter of Ibsen (The Wild Duck, John Gabriel Borkman, The Lady From the Sea) is in the tradition of Scandinavian naturalism. I blogged earlier in the week about how weak the inheritance of naturalism is in our theatre but the great thing is the way theatre always surprises you, because here’s is Naturalism, renewed, vigorous, wholly theatrical, intense and extraordinary. This burning, uncompromising quest for the truth is there in the first four of Ibsen’s great prose plays, before The Wild Duck throws that all up in the air. I can’t think of a play that more perfectly unites that urge to portray the contemporary world (the media, drugs, the middle class, the treatment of addiction) with an unfettered ethical demand for truthfulness. Angela, in the early scenes, is a remorseless truth-teller though this is turned against her (her ‘I saw you’ in scene 2 becomes Lucy’s ‘I saw you’ in scene 12, when Lucy confronts her sister about her own addictive, narcotic self-harming). Marina runs the Crisis Centre and she speaks nothing but the truth; she is guileless and, in a way, artless and so carries a shining sense of integrity, a solid place in the shifting ice flows of this play’s heart.
The journey towards truthfulness is mapped throughout by the complex co-dependent relationships in the play: Lucy and her dealers, Lucy and her sister, Lucy and her mother. ‘Will you be honest?’ Lucy begs her mother, unheeded, in scene 8. Part of her Narcotics Anonymous programme requires her to find ‘honesty and moral vigour’. Later she tells her mother ‘I feel my whole life has been one whole fantastic lie’. The acquisition of truthfulness is hard-won; everywhere, lying is the currency; ‘we have to be honest with each other’ says a journalist pretending to be a TV producer. Honesty is, time and again, revealed to be fraudulent, meretricious, shallow in this play, making Lucy’s own harsh acceptance of her own brutal truths admirable and bracing.
And it’s Naturalism, too, in the best sense, because the form of the play - and of the production - is so powerful, so confrontational, so utterly a part of the experience. The fourteen scenes, undivided into acts, are about a picaresque journey, a directionless wandering through contemporary life. Directionless because where are the guides? The guides are as damaged as the rest. Wandering because randomness is part of our age, though, against that, is a terrible sense of grim continuity, the men who fuck her over, the women who tangle her in irrelevant feeling. The production emphasises this with an elegant revolve, not grinding remorselessly on but oscillating back and forth, disclosing new scenes. But also, it’s bisected by transparent screens; it struck me that these are the various chambers of the heart, knotted and tight through the play, but, as understanding floods through Lucy’s body’s, these screen doors open up, until, in the final scene, it was all openness. An exhilarating organisation of space as feeling, power, movement and meaning.
It’s an extraordinary play. It’s a beautiful play. It’s the most chokingly moving play I’ve seen in God knows how long. It’s brutal and brilliant and I feel shattered at having seen it. It challenges my writing to be emotionally richer, truer, more profound. I love this play.