David Harrower’s play about sexual abuse proves timely and electrifying in a new indie revival.
The title of David Harrower’s play Blackbird brings to mind the old Paul McCartney Beatles ballad of the same name. But if we’re talking classic songs, it could just as easily be called “Sympathy for the Devil.” The Scottish playwright’s much-produced drama about pedophilia, getting an electrifying indie revival from David Ferry and Sarah Booth, challenges us to pity the perpetrator as well as the victim. It’s a tall order. Even putting aside our abhorrence at the idea of sex with a child, are we ever able to feel sorry for someone in a position of power who takes advantage of the powerless? Given the widespread outrage over the behaviour of Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, right now it seems unlikely.
Harrower, however, doesn’t provide us with a straightforward abusive situation. His play is provocatively subtitled “A Love Story” and, as that suggests, the crime he presents us with is not simply a case of predator and prey. His pedophile, Ray (Ferry), had apparently consensual sex with Una (Booth) when he was 40 and she was a precocious 12-year-old. He was convicted and ended up spending more than three years in prison. When we meet him, 15 years later, he’s changed his name to Peter, moved to another town, and tried to put his shameful past behind him.
Una, however, has discovered his whereabouts and tracked him down. She confronts him after-hours in the litter-strewn lunchroom of the office where he works, forcing him to relive their illicit relationship. It’s clear that both have suffered; but while Ray has been able to do his time and move on, Una is still struggling to deal with an experience that has left her emotionally and sexually unstable.
Blackbird made a stunning debut in Edinburgh in 2005—not long after the U.K.’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid engaged in a controversial campaign to “name and shame” convicted pedophiles. After successful runs in London and Off-Broadway, the play received its inevitable Toronto premiere in 2009 from Studio 180 at Canadian Stage. That production was a disappointment, but this new one—despite a budget of, as Ferry joked on opening night, “two dollars”—more than makes up for it.
Ferry, who has also directed and designed the show, and Booth, who doubles as its producer, have staged the play intimately in a classroom-turned-studio at the Artscape centre in Trinity-Bellwoods. Although there are a few multimedia flourishes—including a symbolic, if distracting, CCTV monitor, and faux home videos showing the characters during their “romance”—the focus is firmly on the acting. And these actors give us 85 minutes of nonstop, breathtaking intensity.
As Ray/Peter, a rumpled-looking Ferry is nervous and edgy, trying to suss out Una’s reason for wanting to see him again. Booth’s brittle Una comes on like an avenging Fury, lashing out at him in bitterness and anger. Ferry has trod this territory before: the always-interesting actor was brilliant as the much scuzzier and equally pathetic abuser in Sarah Kane’s Blasted at Buddies in Bad Times in 2010. He brings that same sad, sordid quality to this role; we may not pity him, but we understand his weakness.
Booth’s Una, who is rightly the one we should feel for, doesn’t immediately play to our sympathies. We’re as alarmed as Ray by her wild, aggressive presence. But when she finally recounts the traumatic episode that ended their sick affair, she slowly lets us see the scared and love-starved child that she once was. The actress, whose recent credits include playing the bad-girl villain in the horror film The Scarehouse, gives a fascinating performance in which you can almost see Una discard her emotional armour piece by piece.
Harrower doesn’t appear to take sides in the play, allowing both Una and Ray to tell their versions of the story and letting us imagine that their relationship involved something deeper than mere lust. Even the play’s final plot twist is at once ominous and ambiguous. But ultimately we’re reminded of their skewed dynamic: even the most flirtatious 12-year-old is still a child, and an adult, however confused, occupies a position of power with which there should come responsibility. As in Nabokov’s Lolita, the masterpiece to which Harrower owes a considerable debt, you are left with the heartbreaking sense of a childhood destroyed. When Booth’s Una, reduced again to a young girl, desperately clings to Ferry’s Ray, you think of how different things might have been if he’d restrained his impulses and simply given her the affection she needed.