My life is mine to live again, a stitch in time has saved nine, nothing has changed.
Having thrown off the shackles of Nazism and Communism, Poland has instead subjected itself to the heavy yoke of the Catholic Church. A Time to Reap, Anna Wakulik’s new play, developed in conjunction with the Royal Court’s International Residency for Emerging Playwrights, explores the effects of religion on Polish society, particularly the ban against abortion, passed into law in 1993.
The weight of religion is apparent even before you reach the small Upstairs theatre, as organ music pervades the building. Designer Max Jones has transformed the space into the interior of a church, complete with crucifix, nave, altar and wooden lattice work reminiscent of that on a confessional booth. It is both atmospheric and oppressive. Unfortunately, once the play begins, the spell is immediately broken: the opening is all tell and no show, in which we are swiftly given a potted history of abortion in Poland and of the three characters and how they are connected to each other.
When teenage Marysia is impregnated by a priest at a religious summer camp, she has no choice but to have an abortion illegally. This brings her into renewed contact with Jan, a middle-aged gynaecologist who now, thanks to the Catholic Church, earns ‘decent money’ performing back-street abortions. Marysia used to play with Jan’s son Piotr when she was a child, and now, in a creepy, Freudian turn, she becomes Jan’s receptionist and his lover. Yet Wakulik fails to make their relationship believable: Marysia’s deeply-held faith is in strong contrast to Jan’s bitter, cynical atheism, and it’s hard to reconcile the Marysia who wants to be with a ‘fat old slob who stays at home in his pyjamas’ and never goes out in the evenings with the girl who later visits Piotr in London and indulges in a hedonistic few days of drink, drugs and dancing. Inevitably, their old childhood attraction to each other resurfaces, and Marysia returns to Poland pregnant and conflicted.
It’s unclear whether Wakulik is more concerned with abortion and Catholicism and the resulting lack of freedom, or whether she is trying to create an emotional family drama, and therefore she fails on both counts. She is heavy-handed when dealing with the former – exemplified in a strange baby-shaped cake that by the end is hacked to pieces – and allows the later to descend into melodrama and an insufficiently developed love triangle. She also doesn’t manage to strike the right balance between the characters interacting with each other and the breaking of the fourth wall as they address rushed, confessional-style speeches directly to the audience.
This is a shame, for the characters have potential, and the cast is talented. Sinead Matthews is endearing as the troubled Marysia, struggling with her faith and her desire for freedom. Max Bennet as Piotr gives another powerful performance (he was splendid at the Donmar last year), brilliantly capturing his arrogant swagger and louche confidence; it is in the bitter exchanges with Piotr and his father that the conflicts within contemporary Polish society are best revealed. Owen Teale’s Jan is, however, rather inconsistent – at times puppyish in his love for Marysia and at others predatory, and more could be made of the conflict between his atheism and his monetary debt to the Catholic Church.
Despite the flawed writing, Wakulik does give us a picture of a society still burdened and struggling with its past and she encourages us to think about the cost of freedom, reminding us that it is rarely an unalloyed gift. But the sometimes over-the-top direction and the uneven script – surely someone should have realised that Tamagotchis weren’t mass-produced until 1996, so it would have been impossible for Piotr to have had one in 1989 – result in a play that feels a lot longer than 90 minutes.