Review: Belleville

Jungmin Seo 22 November 2018



Erika Price’s production of American playwright Amy Herzog’s 2013 play Belleville, a modern tragedy of a young couple set in a cramped flat in suburban Paris, is strangely engrossing and marvellously enigmatic. Tim Otto’s domestic setting for the play is intimate: a red living room sofa-turned-bed in the centre, a photo album of the protagonists sprawled on the tea table, a few cluttered shelves on the fringes of the stage. Abby (Kay Benson), a yoga teacher with frustrated aspirations in acting, enters dressed casually in baggy grey tracksuits and a loose-fitting cotton cardigan. Her husband Zack (Jamie Sayers) a doctor with a surprisingly lenient schedule, never changes out of his glaring-white t-shirt. But everything about the opening scene is almost too intimate, a little too comfortable.

The play seeks to question this intimacy between the married bohemian Americans. During their first moments of dialogue, they make awkward small talk, unintentionally interrupting each other at times, speaking at the exact same moment at others. Benson perfectly captures Abby’s frantic and frenzied character as she constantly paces on and off the stage in a slightly shaky voice, her hands always fiddling with something. Sayers’ Zack is also compelling. He convincingly juxtaposes his character’s cool reticence with outbursts of suppressed violence. It is a hard balance to strike considering the contradicting complexities of Zack’s psyche – a step too far and the audience might start to mistake him for slipping out of character.

The action is rooted to such a claustrophobic space – a single room – that it is sometimes possible to forget that we are in France. However, the impressively fluent accents of the supporting actors Anand Joshi (Alioune) and Imane Bou-Saboun (Amina) remind us of where we are. It is a shame that their overall part in the production is minor, but Bou-Saboun tries to make something more out of her rather one-dimensional role as ‘landlord’s hysterical wife’.

As the play heads towards its climax, the married couple decide to go on a “D-A-T-E”. There is an irony here, as things are rarely spelt out clearly in this production. Conversations are opaque and redundant, leaving the audience with many unanswered questions. Price cuts off scenes with disorientating blackouts accompanied by a discordant whistling melody. Boundaries between dream and reality blur. Parisian fantasy fragments into drunken and drugged chaos, thanks to the striking directorial vision on show here.

The L-shape of the Corpus Playroom lends itself well to the thematic preoccupations of Belleville. Although spectators are limited to a ‘restricted view’ of one wing of the stage, voices can be heard everywhere, behind doors and alongside auditorium chairs. Something seems to be hidden from us, but we can’t quite specify what it is. We continue to puzzle over the play’s unsettling eccentricities even when it is over. Abby and Zack can’t leave this self-destructive idyll, and nor can we; a testament to the power of the world Price has created on stage in this compelling production.