Reginald Theatre, October 1
The dim ones, seeing art as a luxury, fail to recognise that among its myriad benefits is a capacity to enhance intelligence, not only by firing our imaginations like so many pots in a kiln, but by obliging us to connect dots. You feel this latter process sizzling in your cranium during the premiere of Mark Rogers’ Superheroes, a script which did the unicorn trick of winning both the Patrick White and Griffin playwriting awards.
It tells parallel narratives (via alternating scenes) about two young female protagonists, and their stories flare with sufficient little commonalities to keep our synapses buzzing away for 70 minutes, hunting for missing links. Emily is pregnant in Thirroul, and Jana is a racist in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Neither woman planned to be this way, and they’re embittered. If either exemplifies heroism, super or otherwise, it lies in their ability to cope – not so much with the slings and arrows fired by fate, but with themselves. They are far from being their own best friends.
Griffin Theatre Company’s first post-lockdown production and is also the first under new artistic director Declan Greene, and the directorial debut of actor Shari Sebbens, who has cast Gemma Bird Matheson as Emily, Claire Lovering as Jana, and Aleks Mikic as Simon in Emily’s strand, and Dino in Jana’s. Designer Renee Mulder, meanwhile, uses great blocks of faux sandstone to establish a world cracking at its seams.
Set three years ago, the play begins with Jana watching the war-crimes conviction of Bosnian Croat General Slobodan Praljak, and sharing her family’s pride in his act of “heroism” when he commits suicide live on TV. Unlike the court at The Hague, however, Rogers is not sitting in judgement. He lets Jana present a litany of all the tribes to storm their Balkan citadel across the millennia, and you start to understand why they might be a bit testy with foreigners.
The conflicted Jana is Rogers’ finest creation: a woman partially aware of her moral folly, yet unable to exorcise the bedevilment of ingrained hatreds at the snap of her fingers, and Lovering softens her by infusing her with singular warmth. Emily, by contrast, is slightly underwritten, and Matheson overcompensates in her performance. This imbalance between the two threads undermines the ingenuity of Rogers’ conception, and his ability to keep us sympathising with characters whose blemishes would glow in the dark.
The imbalance is amplified because the gawky, dorky Simon, father to Emily’s unborn, is, like her, merely brattish, and, given their mutual inarticulateness, the idea that they are both writers seems a lame imposition on the author’s part. Mikic has much more scope as Dino, whom Jana gloriously describes as wearing “the Adidas tracksuit uniform of brain-dead youth the world over”. Mikic and Lovering share an exquisite scene when Dino, who, even as a Muslim of the lapsed variety, is Jana’s mortal enemy, shows her how to relieve her poor hands when they have been lugging heavy grocery bags for hours. The actors lower their voices and draw us forward in our seats for an exchange that’s like fine engraving.
Matheson is at her best when Emily is riddled with guilt at the end – an emotion that afflicts Jana simultaneously. No neat bows are tied: the guilt merely allows them to take one more step on a long road, and to expect more would be expect the conduct of superheroes. Nonetheless the sense that things can’t get worse breeds a barely flickering optimism.