“All my life I wished courage on me”
With the exception of well known classics, it’s not unusual for me to walk into a play without knowing anything about it. The fact this was the case for Robert Holman’s Jonah and Otto at the Park Theatre didn’t make me think twice but as the play started, what I thought it would happen wasn’t happening. Most plays and productions give you a reliable context within minutes of the performance starting. It might be poetic, abstract, absurd or fiercely naturalistic, but it’s solid, something to depend on.
Not so much with Jonah and Otto. Two men meet. That much is unquestionable. They talk a lot. They talk specifically. They talk plainly and with facts. But they don’t justify anything and they don’t hide anything. There is no context to hold them together, therefore every word uttered, exchanged and understood is an act of rebellion. They talk as if several layers of skin are missing, and suddenly this feels as courageous as stepping in front of a tank. Because no one ever does it. It’s weird and wonderful and upsetting and affecting. It’s judgement day as if judgement day was ultimately tender and illuminating and the birth of something, not the end of the world.
Robert Holman – and director Tim Stark – achieve something remarkable: the lack of context doesn’t result in the production dissolving, but in a simplicity as solid as any kitchen sink drama and as sparkling as fireworks. Strip everything away, learned conventions, grime, politeness and the result is combustible and playful. The characters don’t lie but they are not above being silly: look out for the “undressing” scene, which is as much about the characters changing places as it is about being a bit naughty. (There can never be salvation without naughtiness).
Peter Egan as Otto is soulful and unpretentious but with the rage of being old, knowing salvation demands time. Alex Waldmann as Jonah is volatile, like a bird flapping in a room, trying to find the exit. There is something precious and moving about the way they work together, a kind of abandonment which is as much about the openness of the characters as it is trust between the actors.
Play and production could be about a lot of things. I suspect they actually are, and someone else would describe them in quite different terms. But for me it’s about courage. And creating a moment for it to thrive. That’s the context of the play.
P.S. At the beginning of the review I quoted the play from memory. Any corrections welcome.
P.P.S. Continuing a twitter conversation about books as props, Jonah is reading Verse and Worse by Arnold Silcock.