'People, Places & Things' by Duncan Macmillan or 'The doctor will see you now.'

‘People, Places & Things’, Duncan Macmillan
Dorfman Theatre (National), 1st September 2015

I love Duncan Macmillan. I’m possibly even addicted to him. ‘Lungs’ broke my heart, ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ warmed my soul and ‘1984’ scared the shit out of me. This is a playwright who instinctively understands love and fear and how to smother his audience with those emotions. He really is some sort of emotional wizard. But ‘People, Places & Things’, which explores the devastating impact of addiction, didn’t hit me in the heart. It’s a play about a woman – an actress – who has been obliterated by her drug addiction. It’s a play about a world with the centre torn right out of it. It’s a play that seems to be missing something.

This is Macmillan’s second collaboration with the Headlong team but, whilst 1984 felt like a complete and clawing experience, ‘People’ – directed by Jeremy Herrin – feels a little bit tentative. It’s as if Herrin isn’t quite sure how much to fuck things up; whether he is creating a sensory rollercoaster or a sensitive, steady and searching journey.

The play begins with Emma (Denise Gough) arriving at the reception of rehab, smashed out of her head on a stunning concoction of drugs. Gough is quite brilliant and never forces her performance. Her Emma is not ‘whacky’ or anything particularly exceptional. She is a burnt out, broken and stroppy as hell. In fact, Emma is barely there at all, which makes those rare moments when she finally emerges from her dazed cocoon all the more powerful.  

Emma sways around the reception, desperate but reluctant to ask for help. Gradually, the hallucinations kick in; they should be scary and dislocating as fuck but they’re actually pretty predictable. At one point two receptionists, rather than one, pop up from behind the desk. Gulp. The walls in Bunny Christie’s giant cocoon-like set, which wraps a clinical white floor up and over the stage, begin to blur and crumble – but they’re rather pretty projections and they don’t have much of an impact. A bevvy of blond actresses, who all look a lot like Emma, flood the stage and freak out in rather tidy harmony. It’s all a bit packaged, easy – stagey and safe.

There are no moments when the audience is slapped around the face or shaken to the core. As an experiment in the dislocating impact of addiction, this production fails. That’s a shame but not a disaster – there’s an awful lot more going on in this play. Of course there is – it’s Duncan Macmillan people! So whilst the physical impact of drug addiction is in play here, the emotional and psychological impact is much more significant. Above all, this is a piece about the way that addiction robs the addict of his or her identity; the way in which drugs alter human behaviour in such a way that it is impossible to say where the effect of the drugs ends and personality begins.  

There are a few golden scenes in which Macmillan and company interrogate this erosion of identity – and relationships – quite beautifully. But there is one jarring problem behind all these discussions: Macmillan makes Emma an actress. This means that lots of Emma’s hallucinations involve little play extracts and a lot of her flights of fancy are – in reality – borrowed from classic plays. It means that Emma is allowed to say lines like ‘If I’m not in role, I’m dead’ without it really meaning much. It means that the play’s central discussion about the way in which identity is constructed – and broken down - feels a bit lazy, indulgent even. It means that every time we see Emma’s personality physically fractured on stage – as all those lookalike actresses scurry around her – we’re not really thinking that deeply. It all feels like a performance rather than something truthful, searching and hard-earned. And it means that Macmillan’s dialogue, which is normally so emotionally pure and astute, feels just a tad manipulative – no more so than when Emma goes to an audition after she gets out of rehab and, once complete, mutters ‘Thank you for seeing me’. I mean, come now!

In the penultimate scene, the heart of ‘People’ finally begins to beat – hard and loud. Emma returns home to her stiff backed mother (Barbara Marten) and mumbling father (Kevin McMonagle). She apologises to her family – as rehearsed back in rehab – but Emma’s parents go completely off script. They do not offer her support. They barely offer her love. We begin to understand the cruel way that Emma’s addiction has sliced right through the heart of her family. Her mother is no longer able to be a mother, her father can no longer be a dad. Love has been bitterly and persistently shoved aside and, in its place, has risen up loving but closed-hearted support. In one particularly bruising blow, Emma’s mother scoffs ‘I know you sweetheart’ and the awful ambiguity of that phrase stings us all. Which Emma does her mother know – and how much has Emma’s mother been part of her daughter’s growing dependency on drugs? Is addiction a complete devastation of everything that went before – or the final slam of the foot through an already rotten foundation?  


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