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Review: The Mercy Seat

A cloying claustrophobia seeps through the Mercy Seat as a couple face a difficult decision in front of the backdrop of the great American disaster. Lucie Parker reviews.

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Credit: York Theatre Royal
Credit: York Theatre Royal
Writer: Neil LaBute
Director: Ruby Clarke
Dates: 6th - 15th June 2013

The Mercy Seat is an intriguing amalgamation of twisted human characteristics and ideological concepts, threading through and over each other as the play snatches the audience deeper into the heart of its thorny plot. From the beginning the audience are thrust into our role as voyeurs of the relationship of Abi (Lesley Harcourt) and Ben (Andrew Macklin), two Americans trapped in the aftermath of two parallel tragedies. The consequences of both an illicit affair and the events of September 11th 2001 draw the private and public spheres together to create one world brimming over with animosity and fear, hope and excitement, and most of all bleak truth.

The apt setting of this giant self-destructing world in Theatre Royal's tiny Studio illustrates heightens its power and intense nature, forcing us within an arms reach of the uncomfortable darkness that emanates from the relationship in front of us. The wall that is the backdrop to the set is covered with posters of those reported missing after 9/11, visually forcing us into contact with those suffering from the national tragedy, as well as the two opposite us facing personal tragedy alongside New York.

Credit: York Theatre Royal
Credit: York Theatre Royal

The ever-shifting asymmetrical power relations between Abi and Ben are captured well by Harcourt and Macklin. Harcourt's patronising sneers and portrayal of a lost and fearful woman are complemented by Macklin's childish retorts and stubborn nature to create a cruel and toxic atmosphere. The discourse between them danced bleakly around dark humour and the longing for love, stirring audience antipathy and causing see-saw allegiances for both characters. This ever-changing audience feeling for Abi and Ben mimicked their own feelings for each other, creating a frustrated ambience that darted between everybody in the Studio.

The one thing that doesn't work as well as the rest is the way the bouncing dynamics of this play come to end. The dialogue drags in some parts, resulting in the play being longer than it needs to be. This influences the impact of the twist that these tragedies have slowly been swimming towards, making it a short revelation that gives us no time to react properly before the lights come up. Yet perhaps this is the point. What can be taken from this morally haphazard tale are the normative questions of what we would do if in that situation. These evil, entwined tragedies thus successfully stamp their intoxicating impression upon anyone that enters The Mercy Seat.

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