In 90 minutes or so, the woman SevenStreets is chatting with is about to have her world ripped apart. As it will be for the next month or so – and twice on Thursdays and Saturdays.
“It’s only acting,” says Leanne Best, star of the Playhouse’s astonishing one-woman play, the world premiere of Frank McGuinness’ The Match Box.
Well, yes. But there is something else going on here. Something special – as anyone who’s experienced the event can bear testament to.
Frank McGuinness’ smart and sure-footed script traces the aftermath of grief – the particular, and paralysing grief of a mother who suddenly loses her daughter to the random crossfire of a family feud.
The repercussions, and the rupture such events bring are consequences we’re depressingly familiar with around here. But the Match Box offers no lofty treatise of gang warfare. No clumsy exploration of gun culture. It is, at once, the story of a single mother, and a lens on the ‘big society’ she and the crime’s perpetrators are inexorably woven into. Caught in the same net.
Yet, despite the script’s spare and subtle exploration of subject, it’s what’s left unsaid – what’s whispered in the wings, and hinted at in the margins – that forms its harrowing heart. The Match Box is a play of shadows and suggestion as much as it is about crimes and punishment. The eloquent evocation of silences as powerfully realised as the set’s drab, wood-panelled bedroom: the matchbox within which Best’s character rattles and strikes.
And it is a play that, Best admits, she was wedded to from the moment she read the script.
“I knew it was really special. It was a one-woman play, but it was epic in its scale,” Best says of the play’s cast of characters – from well-meaning but clumsy office friends, perplexed policewomen, and parents blinded by anger – and of its timeless themes of revenge, absolution and healing.
Award winning (and Birkenhead-born) director, Lia Williams spotted Best in Gemma Bodinetz’ production of A Streetcar Named Desire earlier in the year – but the actress needed two auditions to secure the part she’d set her heart on capturing.
“When Lia called to say I’d got the part I burst into tears on Bold Street. Some old lady asked me if I was alright!” she laughs.
What followed was total submersion: in the script, the fabric of Best’s character – single mother, Sal, who moves from her Liverpool home back to her family’s heartland, the tiny island of Valentia off the Kerry coast – and the wider universe of a community shattered by a solitary, wayward gunshot.
“Lia’s capacity to see the whole picture is astonishing,” Best says of their extensive preparation – which included sessions with counsellors trained in supporting those who’ve lost, violently, those closest to them.
“Rehearsals were intense and, at times, devastating. Lia would say to me ‘the lift’s going down…’ when she could see me getting lost in the moment. But I knew I was safe, because she was there to pull me back up again.”
So finely dovetailed is the finished product it seems almost indecent to inspect how it was put together. But when you explore how this two-woman production became the most-talked-about theatrical event of the year – garnering rave reviews from local and national press, and a month’s extension in the Playhouse’s recently re-opened Studio – the achievement becomes even more impressive.
For starters, SevenStreets enquires prosaically, there’s a simple matter of learning all those words…
“Oh I’m so glad you asked me that,” Best erupts with laughter, “ I have never, ever, experienced anything so difficult as learning my lines for this,” Best says, admitting to moments of ‘hair pulling frustration’ and ‘word blindness’.
“There’s no mystical answer to it,” Best says of getting word-perfect before rehearsals began, “it’s just donkey work. A chore. And I hate chores…”
It was, Best admits, a chore softened by McGuinness’s peerless writing, his creation of a ‘feasible, contemporary story’ with, Best says, ‘Biblical, Greek, and universal’ themes.
At its core, The Match Box ensnares us because of its unflinching stare; its examination of what happens when someone with an innate impulse for kindness has to live with the guilt and shame that lie in the wake of a sudden, violent loss.
“There is no headier mix of a good woman forced to wrestle with her conscience,” Best says of the play’s ambiguous narrative: did feuding local brothers accidentally kill her daughter? Is their mother shielding them? And, when a mysterious fire engulfs their house, did Sal condone this rough justice? Or did she strike the match?
It’s a smoke-screen, fanned by gossiping neighbours, accusatory police inspectors, and school-gate mums: an off-stage Greek chorus of disapproval, occasionally brought vividly to life by Best herself.
“Whatever you think of Sal, you can never really step into her shoes,” Best says. “When you lose someone so close to you, another world opens up. There’s no end to your grief. You’re in a self-imposed exile.”
Best’s ability to imbue her performance with an agonising representation of bereavement not only confirms we’re witnessing a very special talent at work, but earns the respect of those (this reviewer included) who’ve experienced grief’s exquisite torture.
Witness the searing pain of remembered happiness as Sal recounts the nursery rhymes she used to sing to her daughter, her self-flagellation and convulsions, and the angry interplay between forgiveness and retribution, and you inch closer to the abyss sudden loss opens up.
“My greatest fear is losing someone I love,” Best reveals. “Couple that with the knowledge that your loved one’s killers have escaped justice and that would make anyone unravel.”
Yet, while The Match Box deals with a tragic tale, it is not wholly a tragedy. Sal has been arrested by trauma, but even in the darkest moments sorrow is not the dominant note. Best’s Sal is a determined, complex and nuanced figure. It’s her forward propulsion that keeps us spellbound for the best part of two hours (although quite where that propulsion leads her is left hanging in the air, like the sulphurous smell of a spent match).
“Sal’s fascinating because she doesn’t follow the normal grief pattern,” Best says, “and it’s when she deviates from this that the psychological consequences are most interesting.”
And, we’d add, it’s at these times that those around her – in the press conference, at work, or in the isolated Irish community she flees to – are lost for words. In our society, death, for all its individual sorrow, has only a singular narrative that we’re all comfortable with. Go off script, The Match Box suggests, and you’re on your own.
“Working with such a strong script takes its toll,” Leanne admits. “My body is registering the grief every night. It doesn’t know I’m acting. And I’m in the world of the play all day long. I’ve given up wearing mascara, there’s just no point. I can just start crying at any moment…”
That said, Best is quick to pull herself back together: “but it is only acting. It’s about being alive in the moment. And you keep going because you know that Sal keeps going,” she says.
And maybe that’s the key to the piece’s inexorable tug. It’s a harrowing tale warmed with radiant little moments of grace, and of acceptance. Of the present never being engulfed by the past.
Punctuating The Match Box’s spare and painterly staging, Sal constantly strikes matches – little beacons, casting a clot of light onto her outstretched fists – temporarily lifting the gloom.
Spending time with Best and, more importantly, watching her portrayal of Sal, one gets the sense that they’re lit not to show her the way; but to show us she’s still here. That, even when the lives of those closest to you are extinguished, there is a light that never goes out.
It’s the expression of this truth that gives Best’s performance its brilliance.
The Match Box, to 21 July
pics: Christian Smith