Theatre Inconnu’s Blackbird has had a rough time of it. At the opening night performance, we were informed that the male lead in this two-hander had backed out due to “unavoidable circumstances,” and that the part would be played that night (and for the remainder of the run) by the show’s director. Thankfully, the production has seemed to weather the storm and come out miraculously unharmed: it’s a dark, tense, and indelible production that quickly transcends its behind-the-scenes drama.
In the break room of a shipping company, a young woman confronts an older man from her past. He resists; she presses forward. The initial setup and spare dialogue of David Harrower’s script echoes David Mamet’s Oleanna, but it goes a great deal further into darkness and immorality than even Mamet dared to go. See, it isn’t long before it becomes clear that the man, Ray, had a sexual relationship with the woman, Una when he was thirty… and she was only twelve.
True to the playwright’s name, this is harrowing stuff. As the meeting goes on and Una eventually breaks down Ray’s defenses – built up after a prison stay and a change of identity – the two characters circle each other, attacking, reconciling, arguing and reminiscing. The ninety-minute single act clips along, never dragging or feeling too rushed, either. The parceling out of past and present information is nicely paced and never feels like dead, expository dialogue. And a climactic revelation comes as a true shock – Inconnu has done well to protect the secret. Blackbird is a very worthy drama, if you can stomach it.
Director Graham McDonald only had one day’s notice to step in as Ray, but you wouldn’t know it (save for the earpiece he wore on opening night). He clearly isn’t approaching his fifties as the character’s written to be, but the basic dramatic premise survives because the visual survives: Ray and Una still look like they’re from different generations, even if Ray is a young-looking 45 (and, thankfully, Jess Shead as Una is a young-looking 27). An unshaved stubble helps him here, but the heavy lifting comes from McDonald’s weary, desperate performance, and he pulls it off with aplomb. (I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that McDonald could so authentically portray exasperation and exhaustion on opening night, considering the circumstances.)
But I suspect that even with the original cast in place, Jess Amy Shead would still have stolen the show. Her Una is equally damaged and vibrant, downtrodden and strong: when she recounts her abuses at the hands of Ray, her voice wavers like she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. In the final stretches, Shead throws herself into a long, long monologue that sees her physically distanced from McDonald, and it’s a sad, suspenseful and illuminating tour-de-force of a speech; I couldn’t look away.
Despite the hurdles it’s faced on the way to the stage, Blackbird is taut, suspenseful, and affecting. I’m not likely to forget it – and as McDonald and Shead continue to perform together, it’s only going to get better from here.