"Feel you when you breathe"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 05/02/18

Students at Exeter’s excellent Cygnet Theatre were greatly encouraged this week by a visit from distinguished actor Ian McKellen. He said, "When I am asked what an aspiring actor can do to advance their hopes for a career in live theatre, I shall recommend applying for a place at Cygnet.” I share his admiration for the work of this training theatre. I have reviewed many plays there, and they are always interesting and of high quality. It is a real pleasure to watch as the students grow in skill and confidence.

Director Richard Digby Day’s choice of .J. B. Priestley’s ‘The Long Mirror’, written in 1940, introduced me to a play of which I knew nothing. I could devote my entire word allocation to discussing this rarely-played, fascinating play but that is not my purpose. I will say that the main theme, inspired by ‘An Experiment with Time’ by J. W. Dunne and theories of pre-cognitive dreaming, are of great interest to me. If we live long enough, most of us come to see that love transcends distance, separation, difference and death. It is therefore not so difficult to think of it transcending time as well. Indeed, we easily use the words ‘soul mate’ to denote a particular intensity of love, and many of us experience empathic connections with those we love most, and sometimes total strangers. Leonard Cohen wrote:
‘You say you've gone away from me,
But I can feel you when you breathe’

Most of us can testify to something similar.

Marissa Rowell as the highly strung Bronwen Elder, an artist, has the incredibly difficult task of convincing us, and him, that she has had intimate, loving knowledge, ever since first hearing his music, of unhappy, volatile composer Michael Camber, played by Damian Schedler Cruz. The transcendental nature of art and music is implicit. Both actors bring a high degree of emotional intelligence and richness to their roles as both are forever changed by their encounter in a remote Welsh hotel. Both have to contend with a script that, demands respectively, rather a lot of tremulousness from her and sudden, jarring rages from him before their characters meet on the higher plane that enables him to open himself to the ethereal love of Bronwen and the earthly love of his unhappy wife. I have seen Marissa and Damian take many roles, and was very impressed by their maturity and depth as the characters developed before our eyes. She blossoms, once free of the denial that caused her so much doubt; he leaves better able to accept himself and work on his marriage. – although as another reviewer pointed out, his lines do diminish rather into repeated variations on the theme of ‘Yes; you’re right.’

I was struck by the thought that all our relationships are manifestations of our search for our ideal beloved. Kahlil Gibran has much to say on this; and says it wonderfully.
‘And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.’

As Valerie Camber, Harriet Birks gives a spirited performance of an unhappy, jealous wife fighting to regain the early promise of their courtship, and trying to ground her husband in the realities of marriage. The unlikely alliance of her and Bronwen had elements of one of my favourite Country and Western songs – ‘Jolene, Jolene, please don’t take my man’ - and certainly, the play ends in the rarefied air of lofty, noble, almost unbelievable female camaraderie and sacrifice for the shared beloved. Again, longevity has shown me examples of this so I rein in the ‘Yeah, right’ that springs to mind.

While the eternal triangle grapples with quadratic equations, the other two characters bring a welcome down-to-earth quality to the proceedings. Roxanne Eastaugh’s Mrs Tenbury is well-judged. She could be a nosy old biddy, but Roxanne imbues her with charm, persistence and insight. Her wildly out-of character ring spoke, to me, of possible youthful secrets – so many women of this era lost their fiancés to war. I did think her black nail varnish anachronistic – I’m happy to be proved wrong. Oliver Heaton’s serving-man Thomas has seen it all before as he waits on the hotel guests absorbed in their emotional adventures. His eloquent face spoke volumes; servants are always powerful figures because of what they know but do not say as they witness the brief encounters of their masters and mistresses.

I say ‘brief encounters ‘because one of the pleasures for me was the decision to set this play squarely in the tradition of films of the era. Voice coach Stephen Copp coaxed cut glass accents from the high-born. Costumes, hair and make-up were well used; Marissa reminded me of Vivien Leigh with Joan Greenwood’s enunciation; Damian’s bohemian attire placed him clearly in the creative field, and if Roxanne wasn’t paying homage to the wise, all-seeing Miss Marple I’ll eat my hat. This filmic, period quality worked with the high-end emotions of a piece which teeters dangerously close to melodrama. The playwright in me has been imagining a sleeker, modern version in line with today’s sensibilities.

Alistair Ganley (lighting) and Aidyn Gilbert, stage management and technical, complete the team. The set and costumes were very much in keeping. Finally, I was interested to read that ‘The Long Mirror’ was produced under repertory theatre conditions – with half the usual time for rehearsals. Having haunted the Bristol Old Vic through my teenage years I have a love of that tradition, and was most impressed with the results of the experiment.

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