Graceland by Ava Wong Davies
Royal Court Theatre February 9th-March 11th
Review by Aisling Towl
One Evening - Feist
When Gabriel asks Nina what she’d most want to be, if she could be anything, she tells him ‘a kept woman’. Even though we’ve only just met her, it’s clear this aspiration comes from a place of exhaustion, rather than belief in tradition, or in anything else. Nina doesn’t seem to believe in anything but Gabriel, a moneyed consultant-cum-poet she meets at a mutual friend’s barbeque. He comes across as a bit of a wanker, even from Nina’s rose-tinted description. It reminds me of when a friend tells you about the new person they’re seeing who sounds completely awful but they seem really happy so you want to root for it. And you know you’ll be there for them regardless, if and when it all comes crashing down.
Feist’s One Evening combines poetic lyrics with soft piano chords, a downtempo bassline and dreamy storytelling. Two people meet on an evening and just like Nina and Gabriel, the air between them is filled with promise and suspense. From the outside, we pick up on tiny cracks in the magic, even if the soon-to-be lovers do not.
Sleeping With the Enemy - BbyMutha Ft. Kindora
Once they start dating, he ignores her for three weeks before texting that he wants to see her - no more games. Nina’s reactions to these kinds of moves are usually physically rather than verbally expressed - she bites her cuticles bloody, picks up handfuls from the soil that surrounds her single bed in Mydd Pharo’s raw and disconcerting set. He undermines her, criticizes her, small things at first, nevertheless constant. Anna Clock’s sound design gives way to soft string interludes and crashing waves, which aid the building tension, slow unfolding, something rotting. Then there’s the incident at his parents’ house, a breach of consent that Nina can’t quite put words to: ‘I am aware of what you might call it’. This was one of the most painfully truthful moments of the play - these small, almost mundane acts of violence that are almost impossible to get your head around when you’re in it - maybe because if you did, you might see them as a big enough reason to leave and never come back.
Sleeping with the Enemy is an irresistible dance track with disconcerting lyrics - ‘Why can't I trust in you/ Am I slipping up/ Over you?’. An upbeat hook gives rise to the exhilaration that often accompanies a toxic relationship - the excitement that keeps you coming back, wanting more, despite the feeling in the pit of your stomach that you can’t quite name.
Under My Thumb - The Rolling Stones
Sabina Wu’s performance is breathtaking - she vulture-circles the bed, increasingly filthy, holding court for the full 75 minutes in a traverse space which feels disorienting for this piece - perhaps that’s deliberate. Even if it feels slightly more literary than theatrical at times, Ava Wong-Davies’s script is vivid, rich and poetic. Anna Himali Howard with Izzy Rabey’s direction allows the text to blossom into the space in Wu’s capable hands. She rises to the challenge of its layers and has both sides of the audience eating out of her hands, even when we only get her back.
In Under My Thumb, the singer expounds a taming-of-the-shrew type love story; a marimba melody keeping it light whilst caricatured misogyny praises ‘the way she does just what she's told, down to me’. Read: a man sucking the spirit out of a once-spirited woman, but it’s all kind of fun. Whilst Nina sublimates herself more and more into Gabriel, responding to his criticisms with a recurring ‘I don’t know’, Wu is vital, searing, under no one’s thumb.
cellophane - FKA Twigs
In the play’s frantic climax, Nina re-lives three versions of a single evening, linear time blurring, details shifting, a playful jab in the ribs leads to a fatal stabbing. Or does it? Nina is less unreliable narrator, more woman trying to grapple with a disintegrating reality, her disintegrating perception of it. This is what prolonged psychological abuse does - it makes you doubt absolutely everything you know about yourself. Your smallest observations, the shape of your memories, the words you’ve said and things you’ve done. One moment there is blood pooling on his shirt, the next, he comes home and tells her he is in love with someone else.
FKA Twig’s Cellophane might be the ultimate break-up song - its soaring instrumental and shattering vocals begging to know ‘didn’t I do it for you? why won’t you do it for me?’. Pure, unfiltered agony at the confusion that often accompanies the breakdown of a relationship, expressed with vulnerable abandon. It’s the same desperate confusion we see Nina fight through when her relationship finally collapses.
Take Off Your Cool - OutKast Ft. Norah Jones
After the end, Nina goes on a cottage holiday with her friend Sam - the one who introduced her to Gabriel. Jai Morjaria’s lighting is soft and pastel at the beginning but has gotten gradually greyer over the course of the play. ‘Can you report him?’ asks Sam, ‘And say what?’ thinks Nina. She hit him, which holds a lot more weight within their relationship, and the world, than what he did to her at his parent’s place. The latter is more commonplace, awkward, and infinitely harder to prove.
In OutKast and Norah Jones’s Take Off Your Cool, soft guitar and warm vocals create intimacy, singing of stripping each other naked - not of clothes, but of the other things we wear to protect ourselves. ‘I wanna see you/ I wanna see you’. Wong-Davies reflects a lot on the meaning of love in the script- maybe it’s being seen, maybe it’s feeling something, anything, maybe it’s being taken care of. Nina has been stripped of herself, and she is flailing, but she is still here. From destruction comes a chance to rebuild yourself, and the play’s final tender moments give us hope for this.
So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings - Caroline Polacheck
Gabriel - NAO
Minha Galera - Manu Chao
Oblivion - Grimes
You Sent Me Flying - Amy Winehouse