23 February 2010 Unpublished

What We Know

By Pamela Carter. An Ek Performance/Traverse Theatre review.

WE live in a society disconnected from death. For a certain generation this messy inevitability takes place unseen in far away hospitals and care homes. When finally it intrudes, as intrude it must, it generates a sense of outrage in the bereaved, as if it had no right to be there. This is why so many contemporary plays treat death as the starting point of a study of mourning and not, as in the less sentimental classical tradition, the end point of a tragedy.

Pamela Carter's What We Know, co-produced by her Ek Performance company, is in this territory, but she escapes the most indulgent pitfalls in two ways. The first is to make the death unexpected, turning the play into an exploration of shock as much as of grief. The second is to construct the play in such a way that the audience feels the jolt with a similar intensity to the bereaved woman at the story's heart.

In a technique reminiscent of the second act of Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia, Carter kicks off the play with a scene of such ultra-realistic banality that the switch into a more metaphysical realm is genuinely disorientating. One minute, the excellent Kate Dickie and Paul Thomas Hickey are making a meal together in real time -– onions, tomatoes, chit chat and all – the next minute, Dickie is having an enigmatic conversation with a 16-year-old boy, then hosting a dinner party for three guests she didn't know she'd invited.

Not all of this works perfectly. The first scene is too long and the second too elliptical. The third, however, is superb, a comedy of excruciating social awkwardness worthy of Mike Leigh, boasting brilliantly observed performances by Anne Lacey, Pauline Lockhart and Robin Laing and topped by a raw and moving portrait of grief by Dickie herself.

Until February 27. Box office: 0131 228 1404.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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