Shef Smith’s new play presents three damaged, complex, engaging characters, each trying to continue their lives in spite of a new sense of chaos surrounding them. One is reeling from a split with her husband, another hasn’t left the house since “two Christmases ago”, and the final character explores a newly acknowledged masculine identity within.
Predominately well-written and wonderfully performed, Swallow is a striking and important piece of theatre.
Smith’s control over language is impressive throughout. Much of the play is written with a lyricism and beauty at odds to the situations the characters have found themselves in. Extended descriptions of birds, nests, and blood elevate the play to a level beyond simply ‘good theatre’. It is only in the final moments of the play that the poetry becomes somewhat overwhelming, closing the play with a slight feeling of overkill.
A combination of set and lighting design allows for a neat physicalisation of the situations the characters find themselves in. The set, left bare apart from three different chairs, allows the focus to fall on the actors: this is a play driven entirely by the characters and the language of the piece. It is the lighting – dividing the stage into three distinct cells – which traps the characters into their worlds.
The acting from all three actors throughout the play is superb: each actor manages to create an entirely different sense of energy and chaos for their character. Anita Vettesse’s Rebecca is a woman on the brink of a breakdown, her loneliness and upset palpable from the start. In stark contrast, Emily Wachter’s character, trapped in her house for over two years, is a spikey, energetic creation jumping across the stage, ripping up floorboards. And it is Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s complete control over an emerging, fragile sense of masculinity which is both striking and compelling. Every gesture – from the mannered and learned smoking to the masculine swagger – is measured and considered. The women playing these parts are masters at creating characters.
Despite the fact that all three characters are played by women, Smith handles gender roles and constructions with care and clarity. It is a play about necessary, difficult attempts to continue – to continue lives and loves – even when chaos turns the known on its head. Predominately well-written and wonderfully performed, Swallow is a striking and important piece of theatre.