Real Live Theatre Company , , September 14, 2009
EMPti is an exploration of psychological pain, loss, and the dynamics of a Welsh family who lose their son to suicide.
We first meet Gwydion as we enter the theatre. He is seated under a wash of light and clearly in great agony, mumbling the words “I can’t breathe, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat.” He is looking straight at us, even pleading with us. We are trapped in his world with him from the moment we enter. So from the start, EMPti draws the audience in, whether they are prepared or not.
There is no easing into Gwydion’s death, either– we are hit immediately with his tortured dilemma, his being caught between worlds, and he is soon taken by an angel-like figure. She is gentle, and there is a relief that comes with his silence because he is asleep and peaceful. But Gwydion is not alone – he is part of a family network, and his relief is their horror.
Instead of relying on a classic narrative format, EMPti uses elements of physical theatre, movement, and staged motifs to tell the story.
For me, one of the strongest aspects of the production was the exploration of the paradox of the traditional Welsh family. This is a family of values; a Valleys family, whose roles are clear and established. Yet, we soon start to see the cracks in the system. Mam initially appears content with her role as nurturer – but in a compelling monologue we see that her life actually imprisons her in repetition, obligation, and self-sacrifice. Dad seems like a hard working, if aloof, father – but we learn that the anger in his occasional “fist slams” onto the chair lead to a much deeper well. In fact he is a punisher, who was also punished himself, disciplined by his own father in the barn with a belt: “the same belt he wore to church.”
The sister seems to be the most innocent one in the scenario, who is trying to deal with the tragic loss of her friend and ally with a strength beyond her years. However, her attempts at optimism and positive memory are compromised by her parents’ attempts to stay in denial about the loss when it comes to family communication. This is portrayed to great effect as a verbal ping pong match, with the daughter in the middle, screaming to be heard, whilst her parents try to “get on with things” by manically bantering about day to day life. Yes, there are cracks in the system, and the new generation is feeling them – the son, for not knowing where to take his demons and pain; and the sister, who has to live with the consequences.
The “angel” character seems to be a mixed symbol – she is initially a ray of light in the mind of a character tormented by his own thoughts and emotions. Yet she almost toys with the living and lures Gwydion in a way that makes the audience question her intention. In the initial scene, she throws the characters harshly into their places, away from grieving, so that we can learn about the roles they’ve played in Gwydion’s life. She’s gone from peaceful to forceful; less an angel, and more like fate.
Later on, she dances and entices Gwydion with a crystal necklace (perhaps a symbol of something better?) and we’re left feeling that he would have done better to find the same kind of light within his own life, instead of in his “other world”. She seemed to be a symbol of Gwydion’s longing to be saved, and a general force for the family.
The score, which was written by the performer playing the mother, was effective in setting the tone for scenes. It was eerie and jilting, sometimes provocative.
Very effective were the recorded real-life interviews (a recurring theme in Real Live Theatre Company’s work) which played at various points throughout the piece. Real voices, which served as a stark reminder that the family we were watching didn’t exist in isolation, and that others share their experience.
I found it a moving performance which addressed a difficult and complex topic in an unconventional way. It has stayed with me – the imagery, the dialogue, and the emotion- which speaks to its production. It was also very well performed, and to me, the pain felt acutely real at times. In this regard, EMPti does not attempt to paint a blind picture of optimism and hope with regards to the topic of suicide. Instead, it gives a frank and unwavering insight into the intricate threads which link family life to individual well being – and how those threads can shatter.
Reviewed by: Taylor Glen
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