Found111 is exactly that – a ‘found space’ at 111 Charing Cross Road next to the old Foyles and in the building that used to the home of Central St Martins. You certainly don’t feel you are in the heart of the West End, and that is part of its ‘through-the-looking-glass’ appeal. You dive into an unmarked doorway, ascend several flights of stairs around an old elevator-shaft, cross through an unexpected bar which has an aura of Prohibition-era forbidden fruit about it; and after more stairs you finally arrive in an unprepossessing empty warehouse space with tightly packed rows of seats placed in the round, and a seedy motel room set-up in the middle. One step further and you feel you could slip into a time-space chasm and end up in the mind of John Malkovitch…except in this case it would be his Steppenwolf colleague Tracy Letts.
Bug is an early play in the Letts’ canon, and it is twenty years now since it was first played in London, with many productions around the world, and a film version in between. However, it is essentially an immersive theatre piece, dependent on involving the audience directly in the gathering claustrophobic delusional tensions of the action, and it is astute on the part of the director Simon Evans, fresh from his success with Dazzle, to bring it back to a confined, unexpected space such as this.
The play takes place in a down-at-heel motel room in Oklahoma. Cocktail-waitress Agnes (Kate Fleetwood) stands at an open doorway and the phone continually rings. The caller may or may not be her ex-husband and recent jail-bird Jerry (Alec Newman) because there is no speech, only breathing at the end of the line. This is only the first of many incidents in the play that are ambiguously open to multiple interpretations, and which create destabilising uncertainty in the minds of the characters.
The paraphernalia of drugs, drink, and cigarettes litter the set and we gradually learn the reasons why Agnes relies on them. She lives in the motel after the loss and possible abduction of her son, the disintegration of her abusive marriage, and her own loss of purpose in life. She finds support and light-relief in the company of co-worker R.C. (Daisy Lewis), a feisty gregarious lesbian, but that does not prevent the threat of unwanted visits from thuggish Jerry, seeking a mixture of reconciliation and retribution.
So far, so Sam Shepard; but after half an hour of tart and taut hard-scrabble dialogue, we move more into the imaginative framework of American Gothic, and specifically the world of later Tennessee Williams. R.C introduces Agnes to Peter (James Norton) a gentle, well-spoken drifter who provides a welcome chivalric contrast to the intimidation of her husband. After so much loss and loneliness, Agnes latches onto Peter and invites him to stay, despite his increasing obsession with predatory aphids which he believes have infested the room, and which he then submits to microscopic analysis.
The second half of the play opens with fly-papers and sprays taking over the motel room as a symbol of how these increasingly delusional perceptions of insect attack have taken over their lives. The action gathers pace now as their sense of beleaguered embattlement and isolation intensifies to the extent of keeping the whole world at bay, whether, Jerry, RC, a pizza delivery-man, or Dr Sweet (Carl Prekopp), a representative of the mental institution from which Peter may or may not have escaped. The boundary between reality and illusion becomes fuzzier through each outlandish step.
For the play to work plausibly it depends on virtuosic acting from the two main players, and a repertoire of carefully contrived lighting and sound effects, and this it certainly receives. Both Fleetwood and Norton are at the top of their game, and the lighting and sound schemes devised by Richard Howell and Edward Lewis are cunningly devised to suit the current space and take the audience further into the heart of darkness. The question remains though, as in much of Letts’ actor-driven work, of how convincing the play is, once the epic performances that power the narrative along are taken out of the equation.
Certainly, the play still has a clear topicality for the present news cycle, where concerns over government surveillance, the very possibility of privacy, and the existence of trust in different levels of authority are endemic. However, in purely human terms it is still a stretch that Agnes falls so easily and unquestioningly for the ever-evolving conspiracy theories of her companion and never considers other possible explanations. Fleetwood’s bravura delivery of the monologue that takes her the full distance into the maze of self-deception that unifies her whole past is a brilliant piece of acting; but the triumph feels more rhetorical at this point than truly dramatic.
It should be said that the actors bring out plenty of humour and light and shade that provides a variety of tone in what would otherwise be a relentlessly dark evening. Lewis makes the most of her brief up-beat scenes to give some relief from the cooped-up tensions within, and Newman likewise makes a strong impact as the abusive husband, switching between wry observation, needy self-pity and thuggish red mist with alarming unpredictability. Prekopp has that most difficult of tasks – arriving very late in the action as the action is building to its climax; but he still makes a powerful impression, and the more so for the quiet reasonableness that he introduces at this point.
Norton and Fleetwood offer a tour de force of technical acting, especially when the constraints of space are so great and the amount of physical movement, and set re-arrangement are taken into account. The performances work on a number of levels: both convey a brittle surface and a damaged core that makes their voluntary withdrawal from the outer world more plausible. Their affection for each other is made touchingly palpable alongside their detachment from reality, which we come to understand has begun long before the action of the play. In the way the relationship between a younger man and an older woman is developed under the threat of death there are parallels at points with Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth; but by the end Letts has marked out his own territory with confidence.
This is an engrossing, in some ways unpalatable evening, with a huge amount of talent on display. The venue is compelling in many ways, but frustrating in others (some difficult sightlines and very little room for the audience), and the same may be said of the play. The actors deserve all the plaudits they will undoubtedly receive, but the memory that lingers with me is of the wonderfully detailed sound design, its rationale helpfully glossed in a programme note. A passing car, a helicopter’s shudder, a cricket’s cheep morphing into a smoke alarm, a toilet flush and dogs barking, and so many other carefully chosen but apparently random motel moments all provide a sonic object lesson in how to intensify dramatic plausibility in an unconventional space.