“Killing my sister was proving almost impossible, due to the tenacity with which she clung to life.”
As I sit back on a sofa, the sole audience member for this rehearsal of Debris, I’m disturbed. I’m disturbed by the stare of James Rodgers [Michael], looking up at me to deliver this nonchalant line through gritted teeth. I’m disturbed as Orli Vogt-Vincent [Michelle] spasms wildly on the floor under his choke-hold. I’m disturbed by the suddenness of Michael’s release, yelling “Fuck” as he lets go of her and collapses, exhausted. But most of all, I’m disturbed by the comic calmness of Michelle’s response, rising up, berating her brother for swearing (for which Michael meekly apologises), and proceeding to rub and warm her brother’s hurting hands – hands which seconds ago were wrapped around her throat.
“So, how would you sum up Debris?”. As I ask this question I get a series of groans and dejected looks from the remarkably small team sat in front of me: it’s a question that’s definitely been asked before, and it’s not an easy one to answer.
“Boy… and girl”, James hesitantly begins. “Siblings”, he clarifies, in chorus with director Ella Burns. “Parental issues… Many issues”; “To say the least”, James smiles. Dennis Kelly’s Debris tracks this pair, Michael and Michelle, as they try to piece together their dysfunctional childhood, in a play that is equal parts unsettling and intensely human.
Director Ella Burns was first introduced to the play as a child: “I saw it a long, long time ago, so I can’t really remember what it looked like, but I remember what it felt like”. Starting with the intimate space of the Corpus Playroom, her aim is to put on a play where the audience feel deeply connected to the characters. What makes Debris unique is how it uses this connection, stimulating both empathy and an overwhelming unease.
“A lot of the time when you’re watching a play, you can sit back and say ‘I feel so safe right now’” she points out. The audience of Debris, as I experienced first-hand, will not feel “safe”, nor should they:
“It’s kind of… a fun ‘experiment’, I suppose, to see if we can create that feeling of disturbance in the audience”.
As James puts it, “My favourite thing about this play, and the way Ella’s staged it, is the way it plays around with intimacy. You have this idea that you’re in the home or hearth, it’s mostly just those two characters on stage. A lot of the time, they’re just on their own, so you’re sort of confessing what’s on your mind to the audience; there should be this real sense of connection by the end of the play. But what’s very interesting is that it subverts that, it kind of sucks you in. Because it’s quite funny in places as well, and there’s some really good lines where it draws you in, to this charming pair of kids, but then you realise that they’re sort of unhinged, or they’re lying to you.”
“There’s this real, sort of, weirdness that makes the audience recoil from the intimacy that’s been built.”
With an innovative lighting and sound design, this “weirdness” is reflected in all aspects of the play. “We wanted to create a sense of nostalgia, but also unsettlement.” Ella explains. “We have a composer, Aidan Tulloch, who’s composed three original songs which play on that unsettling, disturbing atmosphere that we’re trying to create, but we’re also using lots of old, romantic songs to play on the idea of love; love which the siblings don’t have.”
The show’s lighting follows a similar philosophy. Ella continues: “I recently watched Euphoria, this new HBO TV show with Zendaya in it, and the lighting in that is amazing. It’s sort of like that, it’s very… Fauvist, lots of coloured gels, and bright colours, undulating a lot. In transitions particularly, I wanted to play around with the lights to make these really colourful, really surreal moments; especially between the monologues, where you’re not sure if the characters are telling the truth. So I want these transitions to make the audience question, “Wait, these lights aren’t real, this isn’t natural”.”
The biggest challenge this play poses, as the cast agree, is balancing this unnatural with the natural, this weirdness with a feel for humanity. Ella elaborates: “It’s so dark and disturbing in places, it’s very easy to retreat into that. One of the biggest challenges, but a challenge I really wanted to rise to, is finding the lightness in it, not being afraid to be funny. Because while they use humour to connect with the audience, they also use it as a way to deflect what they really think. And that’s what makes you care about them.”
“You won’t care about people who are just sad for the whole thing. You care about people who are fully fleshed people, who are happy, and who love, and who want to be loved, and who get angry, and who get sad. You need to have it all in order to see them as being real people.”
And, as assistant director Ella Gold explains, their concerns were not just for “the intimacy between the characters and the audience, but also the power balance.” She points to some of her favourite moments in the play, where a character will say something with a sense of certainty, before stopping to ask the audience: “And obviously they’re not going to get anything back from the audience. Michael has one I love where he says, “It’s love”, and then he goes, “Isn’t it?”, and pauses, and then he goes, “Yes, love”. We’ve done a lot with things like this, maintaining eye contact for a really uncomfortable amount of time with the audience; and again, it’s a power thing, where the character knows they have to be the one to speak, but they’re holding the audience in a kind of… suspense, for as long as possible, because they know they have the power”.
It’s exactly this sort of dynamism that makes the play really interesting. A major concern for a show with a cast this small is keeping the audience gripped, but from the chaotic energy the characters radiated in rehearsal I know this isn’t a problem. As Orli comments, “We’ve been disturbed for three weeks, so you can be disturbed for one night”. I was only disturbed for a few minutes, but it was enough to convince me that this play is worth seeing, if only for a radically different, deeply unsettling, theatre-going experience. The only reason you might not is from fear, and, in the words of Michelle, “Don’t be such a baby”.
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