As one would expect from LaBute, this illicit relationship is a far from easy one: Abby is older than him and Ben’s boss, he is married with children, and as they battle back and forth about how much they really mean to each other, examine exactly what it is that each of them is having to sacrifice in order to go through with eloping and the morality of their actions at a time when their colleagues have been killed. Playing in real time, Janine Ingrid Ulfane and Sean O’Neil sketched out the twisted dynamics of this couple with great relish: the physicality of their relationship palpable though not necessarily quite enough to bridge the intellectual gap between them: LaBute has lots of fun peppering Abby’s chat with references that Ben just doesn’t get, this humour providing some much-needed relief.
For The Mercy Seat is not a particularly easy watch, its protagonists are not especially likeable and their actions are all about the selfishness of the pursuit of individual desire at a time when an unprecedented sense of community was prevailing. But this is what LaBute excels at, caustic tense tales of the darker side of human nature, the grabby opportunism of seizing what one wants without thinking too much about others, the desperation of needing to be the first to be told that we are loved and the compromises we’re willing to make in order to hear it, of needing the sense of victory over the other woman. The way in which the dialogue flows feels very naturalistic, there are no dramatic arcs but rather the real-time aspects allows for the cranking up of an already tense atmosphere to breaking point as the time for planning the escape finishes and all that is left is that final step of commitment.
Director Rob Watt has teased very impressive performances from both Ulfane – her verbal toying with Ben is whip-sharp, belying the emotional dependence on him that she hates herself for – and from O’Neil – his incomprehension that he could be anything than a perfect lover squaring with his not quite Alpha-male status, the American dream not quite delivering what it had promised – and it is this acting that stays with you. The play itself is not perfect, occasionally a little too self-consciously cold and repetitive, but LaBute’s evenhandedness in his characterisation means that our sympathies are forever shifting, keeping us on our toes. In Nik Corrall’s dustsheet-covered set with rolling news coverage of the attack partly visible, providing a constant but unobtrusive reminder of the harshly real world outside of the apartment, the tightly-coiled intensity of these two lovers battling against each other proves a thrilling watch.
Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 18th September