When it comes to debbie tucker green, I am quite simply a fan. Her beautiful but brutalising powers of linguistic invention coupled with a highly-charged political voice make Green one of the most accomplished and innovative dramatists on the contemporary British stage.
Unlike other of her recent plays that have appeared at the Royal Court Theatre, Green’s new play, Nut, is on at the National’s studio space, The Shed. This is a temporary space while the Cottesloe studio under goes a programme of refurbishment. From the outside The Shed appears like a giant-sized block of lego – actually a rather seasonal, festive block at the moment as its red turreted build towers castle-like over the tiny Christmas huts that line the South Bank. Once inside, it put me in mind of the RSC’s The Other Place in Stratford, or at least my memories of it from many years ago, and the feeling that it is in these kinds of spaces, those operating to the side of the larger and more lavish auditoria, that the most exciting work is happening.
I had high expectations and the production did not disappoint. Directed by green, with the wonderful Nadine Marshall reprising a main role (she has been appearing in green’s plays since Born Bad in 2003), the cast delivered a memorable and mesmerising ensemble performance. Equally impressive was Lisa Marie Hall’s design: touches of a domestic interior (kettle, cups, everyday clothes and shoes) are abstracted into a sense of other-worldliness; skeletal girders arch over the playing space, incorporating suspended chairs and a spiralling staircase. When a coat is hung up, the structure swings slightly, pendulum-like, resulting in an aesthetic mirroring of the rhythmical shifts between the characters.
The space is Elayne’s (Marshall) place and the characters who inhabit the stage with her in the first act – Aimee (white female), Devon (black male) and Trey (black boy) – appear, like the setting, as both of this world and from another world. How to write your eulogy is the play’s opening subject, competitively, darkly and yet humorously debated between Elayne and Aimee. There is a line of Aimee’s that captures the feel of this act, if not the fabric of the play overall, the moment when she speaks of ‘an emotional stain’. ‘An emotional stain’ aptly sums up the affectivity of green’s writing: the way her language moves us to think, or invites us to feel (rather than reason) our way to an understanding of her dramatic landscape.
Withholding understanding, leaving us to fill in the gaps and work towards a more complete (yet still productively incomplete) understanding of that landscape is also characteristic of green’s work. By Act 2 and the introduction of Elayne’s younger sister and her ex-husband engaging in a custodial dispute over their (unseen) young daughter, there is an overriding feeling of lives and relationships adrift and emotionally riven. And the play’s final encounter between Elayne and her sister reminds of the sisters’ scene in green’s earlier play, Stoning Mary, and their struggle, if not failure, to communicate.
Strategically woven into the drama are Elayne’s attempts to maintain a hold on reality: obsessive compulsive list-making and the lining up or tidying up of shoes to the edge of the stage. A repeated party trick of flicking cigarette ash into an upturned palm without burning the skin is ritualistically re-imaged as an act of self-harming. By the close of the play the auditorium was shrouded in smoke from the lighting up of herbal cigarettes; the acrid smell lingered as the sparks were extinguished and the final words spent.
Elliptical, dark, moving and yet funny in its observational detail about lives and relationships that are damaged, and with its surreal slippage into the deadly struggle to stay alive, Nut makes for compelling viewing.