By Eliza Burke
As We Forgive is a play in three acts, about three sets of circumstances in the lives of three different men. Written by Tom Holloway, specifically for Tasmanian actor Robert Jarman it is structured as three separate monologues that explore the moral repercussions of events affecting each of the men. In its premiere season at the Theatre Royal, Julian Meyrick’s direction set a tone of classical restraint with each monologue divided by solo cello music, (written by Raffaele Marcellino, performed by Antony Morgan) and projected photographs and lighting (Lisa Garland; Nicholas Higgins) enlivening the spare set design (Jill Munro and Julian Meyrick). All these elements combined to make a show that was subtle and thought-provoking but ultimately left me feeling unchallenged and unmoved.
The acts are divided into the emotional realms of vengeance, hatred and forgiveness and in each we are given different angles on the complexities of morality: an old man who is empowered by the vengeance he wreaks on the teenager who invades his home; another man whose hatred for his abusive father affects his moral radar in his adult life; and another whose own deadly actions against his two sons leave him without recourse to forgiveness.
All three men describe tough personal circumstances and Jarman’s solid performance throughout threw light on many dark corners of the psyche, especially in Acts II and III. But by the end of the play I was left with a feeling of detachment, looking for links between the acts or to the world beyond each of these individual lives, but not really finding them.
For me, this was partly an effect of the retrospective angle of each of the monologues that set up a distance between the description of events and their effects. The circumstances to which we are being asked to apply our own moral radar come to us through subjective description which at times felt laboured and uncertain. Without witnessing the drama of the action or emotion as it has been played out, we are left to ponder the effects in their wake and I felt something of the drama of each moral dilemma and of the play as a whole was lost.
Although each character is written with great emotional awareness and there are profound insights into human frailty, there is a reserve in Holloway’s writing, (and perhaps also in Meyrick’s direction) that left me wanting more tension from these dilemmas, a greater sense of quandary, or perhaps just a greater sense of theatricality to match the depth of the play’s philosophical concerns.
Holloway is renowned for his subtlety and deft structuring of material to create emotional fields of great import. As We Forgive is another example of this. But aside from the shared theme of father/son relationships, it wasn’t always clear whether there were meant to be links between the three stories – a progression of some kind from vengeance to hatred to forgiveness? And if there was, whether these emotional fields had things to share that may have lead to a more coherent claim on what it means to forgive, what brings us to bear judgement in order to forgive, or what events may prevent or hinder forgiveness altogether.
The last act attempted to offer greatest insight into this latter concern, but ended up feeling more like a portrait of self-pity or grief, than a plea for forgiveness. The symptomatic bleeding from the breast in the character appeared as a somewhat trite rendition of the bleeding heart metaphor that ultimately distracted from the breadth of distress facing this particular character.
I wanted to care very much about these men, whose stories I recognised from our collective memory and whose lives were in various states of injury, ruin or suffering because of their own amoral acts or those of others. But I couldn’t help feeling that their concerns belonged to the contained kind of universe as described by the character in Act I – a world that didn’t quite connect with the collective “we” addressed in the title. But then, perhaps this is Holloway’s point – have ‘we’ lost our moral radar, is there no unifying moral compass anymore? – is the amorality of our age such that there is no sense of connection in these matters beyond individual experience and is this our greatest challenge?
I am still pondering these effects of the play, the questions it contained and the sense of detachment I felt as I left the theatre. To this end As We Forgive was a success.