Blackbird, written in 2005 by David Harrower, revolves around the reunion of 55-year-old Ray and 27-year-old Una. Due to Coronavirus-related restrictions, Suffragette Theatre Company’s production of this play is the first Durham Student Theatre show available through livestream only, and that brings its own complications to the table. There is something special about watching theatre in person, seeing the sweat on an actor’s brow, choking on the tension of a long pause. Making a show work on screen is challenging in itself. It is even more difficult for a show as heavy as Blackbird, but this production is a true testament to the sheer power of talent and dedication.
Camera-wise, the set-up is fairly simple: mostly a wide shot with some close shots for monologues. The close-ups are crucial here. Due to the small cast size and the need for social distancing, this is (for the most part) a very still show. Its static nature puts yet more pressure on the two performers. It is lucky, then, that Daisy Hargreaves (as Una) and Ben Willows (as Ray), under the direction of John Duffett, are absolutely mesmerising to watch. Hargreaves is often the more commanding presence, tightly coiled and seething in places where other actors would be so tempted to explode. It is easy to show anger through shouting and screaming, but here rage and hurt fester like an open wound. Willows, meanwhile, delivers a masterclass in physicality, awkwardly shuffling and fidgeting and always seemingly afraid of both himself and others.
The show has a heavy subject matter. I do not wish to go into great detail about the plot, partly because the show comes with a hefty number of trigger warnings (child abuse, sexual assault and misogyny) and partly because a significant strength of both Harrower’s script and the actors’ performances is that the relationships and characters unfold only gradually. The past is debated and the audience must come to understand the complexities at work. If Hargreaves and Willows did not make their characters so authentic and believable, this play would fall apart at the seams. Instead, even though the subject matter is intensely uncomfortable and sometimes explicit, it becomes a story that has to be seen through to its conclusion.
The show suffers from a technical shortcoming in terms of its sound; this is understandable since it is the first streamed Assembly Rooms show. Even when I had my computer’s volume turned up to the maximum, it could be a strain to hear the dialogue, especially in the quieter parts of the show. Shows like Blackbird usually suit intimate studio venues that can afford those muted moments, but whether it is the size of the Assembly Rooms or the filming equipment, some lines are swallowed up along the way. That said, the fact that this is a streamed show is an advantage where the set is concerned. It means that the stage can become a chaotic mess without the production team having to clean it night after night. Additionally, it allows the audience to recognise the set’s smaller details, such as safety notices or employee of the month announcements. If this show had a live audience, anyone sitting towards the back of the Assembly Rooms would miss these neat little touches.
These are strange times for everyone, and even stranger times to try and create theatre in. I wish that I could have seen Blackbird live in the Assembly Rooms and had that shared experience that makes theatre so remarkable. However, what is available to stream is the next best thing and a proud example of what the ingenuity, talent and commitment of students can achieve.
This pre-recorded performance will be available to stream online until the end of Saturday 24th October.
Image: Two Doors Down.