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Theatre of Scotland

Unfaithful- Traverse Theatre , Traverse Theatre Edinburgh , August 23, 2014
Theatre of Scotland by Unfaithful- Traverse Theatre Rachel O’Riordan’s direction brings a piercing visual clarity to Owen McCafferty’s new play. “Unfaithful” has affinities with “Closer” in its structure of two couples with a linking figure between them. McCafferty keeps a surprise in store in his structure in his late revealing of a second link. As in Patrick Marber’s play a chilly separateness pervades, that finds its echo in the sound and visual design. Debra Salem’s music has a clangourous harshness to it. Gary McCann’s set both colonises the sizeable stage of the Traverse and suggests a sense of emptiness for the play’s four characters to inhabit. A hotel bar in a standard-issue chain exudes the modernity and anonymity required in its design. The younger couple has a home with a kitchen of elaborateness. It has scale and gloss but comes without love or personal touch. Emblematically it is paid for by a professional life that too promises but evades intimacy.

Rachel O’Riordan has elicited performances of brilliance. Benny Young brings all the resilience of age to his character, upper-fifties plumber Tom. At home the carapace of an over-habituated marriage permits little more than the smallest shards of vulnerability to show. The boundary lines of middle age are now infinitely elastic and Cara Kelly’s Joan is long-settled wife and mother but demonstrative of physical urge and dissatisfaction. Owen Whitelaw gives Peter, in his professional capacity, a sparkle to the eyes that eerily masks the boundary line between personal desire and commercial purpose. It is a remarkable display of the actor’s art.

America Darwish’s Tara is the role least worked-out in the writing. On the one hand she is believed to be possessed of a spontaneous promiscuity but in her domestic life reduced to protest on the lines of “you never say you love me.” But then men do not; love is expressed in its action. McCafferty’s premise is true, that the threat of infidelity may be as great in impact as the act itself. Indeed whether the infidelity even took place ceases to matter. But for all its dramatic punch and superlative surface “Unfaithful” does feel like a mid-way draft of a script.

The lines on occasion step back from relationship in action to interior generalisation. “Other people can’t tell you the life to lead.” “I’m a fifty-seven year old man who’s afraid of living” says Tom out of the blue although he has given no prior indication. But writing for performance is in the doing, not the telling. The script has a strong narrative momentum but is scant on the inner echoes that bind into a whole, those leitmotifs that an audience picks up on.

Tom and Joan move within similar linguistic territory, but most long-term relationships match an introvert with an extrovert temperament. Conflict may ignite over a particular cause but it persists and furrows deeper because of the incompatible manner in which conflict itself is addressed. But most of all “Unfaithful” has a particular modernity to it in its suggestion that sexual rapture is in itself a healer. It is not easy for a playwright to research, other than to ask, but the truth is the opposite. Relationship over decades may still have sexual fire to it but that does not compensate for a pattern over years of accumulated inattention. Tom late on goes into memory- a former boyfriend had a head the shape of a television and a nickname to go with it. Recourse to reminiscence is rarely a good writing substitute for present texture, in part because the estranged have forfeited the pleasure of common memory.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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