The Mercy Seat FRINGEWORLD 2015

The Mercy Seat 3.5 Stars

Review by Laura Watts

When the world around you is thrown into terrorism related turmoil and you’re busy getting a blow job from your mistress instead of attending a meeting in a building that has since been reduced to rubble, do you a) tell your wife and children that you’re safe, knowing you’ll have to face hard questions about why you weren’t at work? or b) run away with your mistress and make fresh start, leaving your heartbroken spouse and kids to think you’re dead? This is exactly the predicament Ben Harcourt (Christopher Sansoni) finds himself and his lover Abby Prescott (Russya Connor) in when Perth’s CBD is rocked by a series of fatal explosions in 2020.

Ben sits motionless in an apartment as his phone rings again and again. It is clear that he is distracted, despondent, and entirely unwilling to talk to whoever it is trying so desperately to reach him. To the sound of an opening door, a woman shuffles into the flat among a flurry of fine dirt that has blown in from outside. From under a dusty coat and scarf, a futuristic looking Abby is revealed. Her silvery clothes and flaming red hair are striking when juxtaposed with her ordinary looking apartment. She comments on the destruction across Perth city centre – the hundreds of ‘missing’ posters which line the barren streets and the countless dead and missing citizens – while images of terror flood the screen of a TV in the room in which she and Ben now stand.

Ben, described as having ‘an absolute commitment to being a flake’, is selfish, inarticulate, unemotional and often unresponsive. He considers the post-attack panic and confusion as ‘having unlimited potential’, potential which could see him fake his own death and run away with his lover without the responsibility of being accountable for his adulterous actions. Abby seems rather more intelligent than her boyfriend, somewhat more realistic and does show a degree remorse for the twosome’s questionable bedroom activities. However, just as Ben darts between ideas of going home to his wife and staging his own death, Abby flits between hurling insults at her ‘piece of ass’ and desiring him with great desperation. One minute she is kissing him fervently, the next she is smugly recalling ‘making lists’ during any number of their sexual encounters.

As the emotional counterpoint to Ben’s cold persona, Abby encourages Ben to pick up any one of the many phone calls from his despairing wife, and questions the real implications of running away – does Ben realise he can never return? As Ben’s boss, will Abby be required to speak at his funeral? Will she be able to lie? What will happen if she leaves her high-paying job? Does Ben really love her? Would he give up his life for Abby if roles were reversed and she asked him to leave? Many of these questions are nutted out by the pair during their banter. However, just as many are left unanswered. Even with these doubts in mind Abby is, at least momentarily, seduced by the idea of absconding, but the potential future the pair has conjured up comes to a shattering halt at the end of the play when the clever, provocative twist in the plot is revealed.

Sansoni is perfectly dislikeable in his role as Ben, conveying the self-interested character with ease. Connor is similarly well cast in her portrayal of Abby, the temptress-cum-clinger. However, especially in Ben’s case, the play does not allow for much character growth. The actors’ talents are obvious, but with few opportunities for character development, their performances somewhat constrained by the writing.

The Mercy Seat was written by American playwright Neil LaBute as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This adaptation by Big Budgie Productions has changed the landscape to a more recognisable Perth setting with permission from LaBute himself, replacing famous NYC landmarks with rather contrived references to our own sleepy city. References such as ‘the Narrows Bridge’ and ‘St George’s Terrace’ give the play a geographically relatable framework, but don’t sound at all natural rolling from the mouths of the characters. Although the local feel is reinforced by other Australian references (such as Ben’s exclamation that the nation would remain in mourning until ‘Australia wins the Ashes again’), it is countered by historical American references, including a spiel about Audie Murphy, one of America’s most decorated World War II combat soldiers. For the sake of consistency and believability, it may be better to include recognisable heroes from our own current context.

The Mercy Seat is a combination of light hearted banter and torturous moral questioning. At times it is clever, sharp and witty, and others tedious. Despite the criticism, it is still a performance well worth watching.

The Mercy Seat played at The Blue Room Theatre as part of its Summer Nights program for FRINGEWORLD 2015 from the 3rd – 7th February