Where to begin? I feel, quite literally, as though my head has been severed – or at least all my senses from any conceptual reason! After intently watching Iris Murdoch and J.B Priestley’s A Severed Head, performed at the Corpus Playroom, I am still utterly perplexed as to what I just beheld in this impulsive entanglement of humour, confusion, adultery, incest, deceit and amorality. With an intricate, complicated plot of compiled affairs, love-triangles and – to be brutally honest – madness, A Severed Head is definitely a complex performance.
Focalised on the failed marriage of protagonist Martin, the play portrays his adulterous affair with Georgie coinciding with his wife, Antonia’s, affair with her psychoanalyst, Palmer; intermingled with varying love interests of Palmer and his half-sister Honor; Georgie and Alexander; Martin and Honor; Antonia and Alexander and Palmer and Georgie… A mass of interlinked love-triangles that leaves the audience reeling. Yet amidst this aura of confusion, comedy prevails throughout with the actors’ facial expressions, slapstick, intonation, accents and physical jesting keeping the audience in perpetual fits of laughter.
The naivety of Martin was fantastically conveyed by Adam Butler-Rushton through his comic facial utterances, his innocent intonation and his expressive vulnerability. The acting throughout the play was brilliant in the continuous maintaining of diverse character roles, bourgeois accents and stereotypical personalities that managed to sustain an air of individuality and originality. In a play with such a complex plot-structure, such consistent character portrayal enabled some sense of clarity and moreover enabled true audience enjoyment through the consistent atmosphere of comedy and satire.
However, despite such clear and brilliantly-personified characters, the set was lacking and only served to add to the confusion of the plot. The transitions between the two principal house settings were not only slow but also often irregular and inconsistent in the manipulation of cushions, paintings and screens to indicate a change in scene. Although the concept behind differentiation of the two sets – through changing of hanging paintings, loss of cushions of the sofa, and introduction of a screen – could be potentially successful, it lost its effect in the inconsistency of maintaining clear differences in set as the cushion-changes were erratic and the screen’s presence chaotic. This inconsistency in scene transitions only served to add to the bafflement of the overall performance.
Yet despite clear first-night hiccups, missing props and lines, and slow, confused scene transitions, the show was enjoyable in an original way. It was definitely comic to watch the perpetual manipulation of Martin’s naivety amongst interludes with Palmer’s Freudian notions accompanied by yoga, Georgie’s sudden madness, Alexander’s impulsive engagements and Honor’s bizarre Japanese sword acrobatics. Overall a face-paced, witty, satirical piece, merged with underlying deceit, immorality, infidelity and Freudian perspectives; yet as to how far these were intermingled successfully is unclear in the final sense of mystification that remains with the viewer, leaving them questioning the reality of the abstract, inexplicable performance.
A Severed Head plays at the Corpus Playroom, 7:00 p.m. until Saturday. Tickets can be bought here.