As any pseudo-intellectual auteur/arts-student/journalist (tut) will tell you, the French call an orgasm ‘le petit mort’ for a reason. David Leddy’s Coriolanus Vanishes homes in on the polar opposites of sex and death – how they inform one another, and how they become, to some extent, the defining moments of our lives. But more than that, it’s a play obsessed with contradiction in general: public and private; business and personal; feminine and masculine; global and local. It’s a monologue, delivered intimately to the audience in an affable conversational style; and yet it concerns mental illness, child abuse, war crimes, and murder to name but a few of the topics covered.
Irene Allan’s Chris sits at an ornate desk, dressed as if for a job interview. Pretty early on, we find out two things that provide the narrative drive for the play: firstly, three people close to her have died, and, secondly, she’s locked in a holding cell awaiting trial. The expansion of this premise – who these people are, and why she’s in prison – weaves around a dizzying array of anecdotes: growing up with a single parent, arms dealing with Saudi Arabia, her marriage, a subsequent affair. None of these stories end up quite where we expect, pulling the narrative in several directions and painting a portrait of a broken woman. In a nice little piece of meta-storytelling, we’re given flyers that tell us the role of Chris was originally played by Leddy himself, thus being provoked into imagining how this story would’ve felt delivered from a male voice. It’s something that provides much cause for thought throughout the show: how we view homosexual relations, affairs, and violence from a gendered perspective.
But, first and foremost, this is a dizzying chronicle of descent: of childhood trauma tearing apart a loving family for generations. It’s thrilling, in a distinctly depressing fashion, to witness such manic self-destruction over the course of just over an hour, even as the finale seems increasingly inevitable. The nuances of Coriolanus Vanishes may lend themselves to a specific character study, as opposed to channelling universal themes and emotions, but certain passages of the narrative will likely strike a chord with audiences – and as the play draws to its conclusion, it hits emotionally intense notes. Through it all, Allan soldiers on – delivering a unpredictable, complex monologue in a fashion that doesn’t feel much like acting at all – but rather that she is Chris herself.
So far, so good, but what elevates Coriolanus Vanishes above ‘powerful monologue’ status is its immaculate, immersive staging. Here is a production that understands the mesmerising, reflective power of light: scenes in which we, the audience, are bathed in refracted beams shining through an impenetrable mist, to an ethereal soundtrack, are pregnant with meaning. They provide a period for reflection, on Chris and on ourselves, and also give us something beautiful to look at; perhaps they even act as a visual metaphor – with images this abstract, meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Light comes and goes: ebbs in multicoloured flux behind the set, providing a backdrop, occasionally casting Allan in silhouette, occasionally dipping in frequencies that fuck with the audience’s vision, filling the stage with a strange haze.
The set is constantly bathed in mist: mist that breaks the fourth wall and brings the audience into the narrative: flashlights and lasers seem more like confrontations or conversations than mere set design. Nich Smith’s lighting design is such a triumph, because it informs the way we feel about the piece – perhaps even more so than the monologue itself. Chris’s words are dramatic, heart-breaking, and intense; but the lighting style leaves the experience of Coriolanus Vanishes lingering like a dream: hypnotic, drifting, and inexplicable.
Aside from the lighting, the set-design has more than a few tricks up its sleeve. Periodically, Chris will remove some sort of microphone device from the desk – these range in styles and age – and speak into it for five minutes or so. The change in microphone completely changes the dynamic in the room – at times causing sound to filter in through the back of the theatre, as if being whispered in your ear; and at times blasting from the front as if at a comedy gig. Pages of books rain down upon the audience, blood drips from the ceiling, and in the final seconds of the play, a disarmingly simple, deviously clever piece of design caused a mass gasp to erupt amongst the audience.
This all adds up to a cohesive, enigmatic whole. But one thing really doesn’t work: there are periodical inserts of sanitised pop from Neko Case, breaking up scenes and digressions, that feel utterly apposite to Coriolanus Vanishes. Here you have a mysterious, drifting piece of powerful, dark storytelling over a background of mesmerising colour; and then, suddenly, some breezy pop music blaring over the speakers (causing me to physically jolt at the shock three or four times). I make it sound ironic, but it clearly isn’t – it’s a tonally wrong, misjudged insertion into the sound design that really takes the audience out of the moment multiple times. It’s a shame, because aside from the annoying jukebox tunes, Danny Krass’s sound design is filled with enigmatic detail that chimes perfectly with the rest of the production: strange clicks here, a woodland breeze there, industrial buzzing there.
In sum, Coriolanus Vanishes itself presents a contradiction in the vein of those it explores. It is an immediate, horrifying, explicit, at times shocking monologue steeped in reality that nevertheless feels like a serene dream. Leddy’s production may only last 75 minutes, but it feels like it exists in some place outside of time – where an entire life with all it’s nuance can be dissected in negative space, filled with kaleidoscopic light and colour, whole and yet fractured. Just beneath the surface of everyday life, Chris tells us, there’s complete anarchy lying in wait. Coriolanus Vanishes reminds us that we’ve all lost someone dear to us; that we’ve all loved and had our hearts broken; that, in many ways, we are all broken, imperfect, erratic. It doesn’t suggest we wallow in self-pity; but rather revel in the beautiful chaos of life.