Draw with me . . .
The star of Jeremy Brock’s new play is Abi (played by Charity Wakefield), an English artist-in-residence at an observatory in the Arizona desert. When we first meet her she’s full of energy, unable to sit still and stunning monosyllabic technician Chuck (who’s never even left the state of Arizona) with the sheer force of her endless stream of words (‘they do everything bigger in America: deserts, storms, fat people’). It soon becomes clear, however, that Abi is looking for Martin (her ‘starman’), an astronomer with whom she’s having an affair, even though he’s upset her by claiming that art is just ‘a complex form of self-indulgence’. This, the relationship between art and science, and between artists and scientists, is the core focus of the play.
Ian Bonar is brilliant as the strong, silent Chuck, unsure how to deal with Abi’s constant rhetorical questions and statements of justification about her ‘process’ as an artist – his expression moves nimbly from surprise to disbelief to bemusement, often causing the audience to laugh. And these moments of levity are welcome, as The Blackest Black packs quite a weighty emotional punch as we watch Martin and Abi cause each other pain as they struggle to reconcile their fundamentally different world views.
The Blackest Black is not covering any new territory – art versus science has been explored many times – and it could even be argued that what it does cover has been done better. Yet, though both Abi and Martin are frustratingly stubborn characters whom you might struggle to like, you find yourself rooting for them because Brock has created a relationship that feels real: even when Martin finally reaches out to Abi, explaining how isolating science can be (‘I’m standing in the dark looking for light’), and you imagine her creative process as an artist could be just as isolating, she still can’t ignore his earlier claim that she is ‘illogical’ and ‘nonsensical’ and reach out to him in his despair. There’s also some beautiful, powerful writing – particularly when Abi explains why she thinks that ‘light is the DNA of the universe’ – as well as some thought-provoking metaphorical passages about binary and companion stars, which you imagine could stand in for people: some stars get sucked in or eaten while others feed off smaller ones.
Charity Wakefield and John Light are well cast as Abi and Martin: Wakefield brilliantly captures the highs and lows of the artist, and her skittishness is counterbalanced by Light’s quiet intensity, though Light does have trouble maintaining a convincing American accent throughout. It is interesting that director Michael Longhurst also directed the phenomenally successful production of Constellations at the Royal Court in 2012; the two plays have much in common, and you can see Longhurst’s influence in the beautifully choreographed, dream-like sequence at the end of the play where Abi and Martin create a haunting and abstract work of art, simply composed of charcoal black lines on a white surface. It’s a shame that the play doesn’t finish here, but instead includes an odd final sequence referencing Sylvia Plath. This aside, The Blackest Black marks a strong beginning to the new year at the Hampstead Downstairs theatre, a wonderful space dedicated to celebrating bold new writing.