The space of the Project Cube could have been designed for Purple, lending itself perfectly to the setting of a dim, dank, factory basement in which a newly-formed band rehearses. As the audience enters, they are playing together, and playing out their rivalries, enthusiasm, posing, bickering. This is a space for the grandiose dreams of teenage boys: although none of them can really play, they are convinced that they are on their way to success. The stage empties, and in the opening scene, we see the space shift, as the Boy (Manus Halligan), proudly reveals it to the Girl (Rebecca Guinnane) he has brought to show it to. She is less than impressed – it’s cold, dark, it gives her the creeps – and he begins to see it through her eyes. Suddenly all of his grand pretensions to the glamour of being in a band are dismantled, and he seems to lose enthusiasm. During this exchange, Halligan and Guinnane conjure up a deliciously awkward interaction, conveying the agony of not knowing what to say to someone you desperately want to impress. The space between them suddenly becomes tangible, their every change in stance adds to their evident discomfort, and every sentence is a desperate attempt to break those interminably long silences. We learn that the Boy’s grandmother, who raised him, has recently died; that he has never had a relationship with his parents and is struggling to cope with the death of the only family member he knew.
Then, to reinforce the vulnerability he has just revealed, in comes the drummer, introducing an entirely new kind of tension. Moe Dunford presents a striking contrast to Manus Halligan’s skinny frame and hunched posture – all swinging shoulders and swaggering alpha-male body language, he represents an entirely different kind of teenage insecurity. It’s revealed that the Girl and him have been dating, and his possessive, domineering attitude towards her is clearly for the benefit of the Boy, who is crestfallen. When the Girl leaves, the tension between Boy and drummer is heightened. They are set up as rivals for the Girl’s affections, but there is more to it than that: the band is also a point of conflict between them. The drummer’s refusal to keep time, the Boy’s backing out of promises he has made, his clear discomfort and wish to leave, these are issues between them that they are incapable of discussing calmly. The two are clearly threatened by each other, and again body language has a huge amount to do with the portrayal of their relationship dynamics. When the other two band members come bouncing in, they are nonplussed, and don’t understand the reasons behind the Boy’s sullen refusal to play. The band go off to find a replacement guitarist, the drummer locking the door behind him, and the Boy is left alone in the dark, practising his one guitar riff, dedicated to his grandmother. There is a sequence of feedback noise and haywire lights, which highlight the confusion we already know him to be going through – this effect could have been overdone, cheesy, but Zia Holly’s lighting is effective enough to draw the audience in to his state of mind. When the Girl comes back in, he is unable to disguise this hurt and confusion, and takes it out on her, although it ultimately seems as if there will be resolution of some kind. The two leave the space together, back into the outside world, which seems to offer a release from the claustrophobia of the dank basement and the tensions of the band.
The experience of watching Purple is comprised of part sympathy, part vicarious enjoyment at the familiarity of the awkwardness and extreme emotions associated with being a teenager. These characters are all at an age when anger, jealousy, desire, rivalry, can neither be concealed nor articulated, and this element is understood and effectively exploited by both director and actors.
In a play without any stage directions, or character descriptions, much of the interactions and dynamics have to be very much read between the lines. Director Edwina Casey, whose work before Purple has all been devised, used this experience to develop the show: the first three days of rehearsal were concentrated on improvisation, for the actors to explore the characters, and the ways in which they interact with each other. This really stands to the show as a whole; there is a real sense that the actors feel for their characters, and have affection for them, as they have in a sense invented them. The show’s bubbling over with energy, with the polar emotions associated with adolescence, and some genuinely touching moments. I very much doubt there was anyone in the audience who couldn’t identify with the Boy’s anguished conviction: “It’ll never be alright. It’ll never be alright.” Purplemanages to convery these heightened and exaggerated emotions without condescension.
If there are weaknesses, they are associated with the text. There are a couple of lines which feel unnatural, which are all the more highlighted because of the naturalness of the rest of the acting. I suspect this might have something to do with difficulties of translating Fosse, whose plays are written in the New Norwegian, or Nynorsk, language, a synthetic form which is never really used in everyday life. In an interview, he has been quoted as saying: “It’s the same with French and German theatre: their theatrical language is not the way you speak in the streets. In England, theatre is connected to dialect and what level of society you’re speaking from. Elsewhere, it’s a poetical reflection of the basics of life.” His writing has often been classified as “post-dramatic theatre”. Despite being the world’s most performed playwright, his work is rarely staged in the UK and Ireland. He attributes this during the same interview to a predilection in England for naturalist theatre: “My writing can’t cope with complete naturalism. It just disappears.” To a certain extent, this production is at risk of this: the content at times feels slightly flimsy, although this as I have said is more to do with the text.
Devices such as the surreal lighting and heightened soundscape during the Boy’s interlude in the darkened room help to avoid an overly naturalist aesthetic, as does the set, designed by architects TAKA. Comprising of two long black boards along the top and bottom of the stage, it makes for a hyper-realist feel, giving the audience the feeling that they are looking into a wide-screen television. Described as a “deep, dark and revealing journey of unspoken tension, hidden emotion and adolescent rivalry,” Purple is not quite so harrowing as this suggests. It is, however, a touching and well-executed exploration of the (often harrowing) experience of being a teenager, the attempt to find self-expression and form alliances and relationships, performed by a very strong cast, and with an atmosphere that remains with you after the play ends.