Where Lies the Wounded Scavenger by Caitlin Murphy
Though Judith Thompson’s Lion in the Streets premiered almost 25 years ago, sadly, there is no lack of resonance right now for plays that tackle themes of bullying, isolation, and the perverse thrill we often get from ostracizing others. Presented by the National Theatre School’s graduating acting class, and directed by Ravi Jain, this production comes at the material with claws out, but doesn’t quite control its swipe.
In the half-light of the play’s eerie opening, the company surrounds Isobel, a young Portuguese girl, like a pack of wolves, and sings the haunting Hellos of Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit. Isobel, we soon realize, speaks to us from the dead, a victim of the title’s lion, itself a metaphor for society’s random acts of savagery and the hurting souls behind them. Isobel takes us on a tour through the streets of her old neighbourhood, where, behind closed doors, broken people desperately seek solace, often through the suffering of others.
The set, primarily a children’s playground, features a sand lot, monkey bars, merry go round, and (rather awkwardly) a table buried upstage. The design afforded some creative staging, and sometimes enhanced the play’s emotional impact – as when the monkey bars echoed the subway tracks of the train that killed Isobel’s father – but it also felt like it was working against itself, straining to provide functionality and support the drama. Some inelegant direction in set usage – particularly an extension cord phone that came out of nowhere – was sometimes distracting. Ultimately though, I wondered if the playing area itself was perhaps too sprawling and wide to best serve the play’s violent intimacies.
This was my first encounter with Thompson’s script where I felt the structural integrity quite lacking. It’s a two-act piece, which, with the lack of narrative drive, feels unnecessary (length considerations aside). And individual scenes, though linked through character connections and over-arching themes, sometimes feel too discrete, like individual writing exercises, belonging insufficiently to the whole. Increased fluidity in scene transitions as well as greater use of Isobel as narrative thread may have combatted the play’s inherent disjointedness.
Typical to Thompson, scenes themselves are consistently striking in subject matter – a housewife does a strip tease in a humiliating plea to win back her straying husband; a daycare worker lashes out at the posh parents who need but judge her; a repressed office worker gives up his one comforting fantasy of a childhood kiss in order to free the disgusted friend of the memory; a paralyzed woman confronts a journalist with her powerful sexual urges. The point of entry into these scenes though often felt too close to the point of exit. That is, an evenness tended to creep in, and a straight road got unwittingly made of scenes with bumps, twists and turns.
Like Yasmin Reza’s God of Carnage, Lion in the Streets asserts that bullying is not the exclusive domain of children. Sadly, we don’t grow out of our urge to gain power from the vulnerability of others. The animal motif that runs from the title throughout draws attention to the complicated duality of our base animal drives and our higher human interests. Beneath our veneer of civility often lies a wounded scavenger.
The company of the graduating class clearly was inspired by this message and galvanized to convey it, bravely tackling some quite difficult, charged and overtly sexual content. Aside from a stand-out performance by Chilko Tivy as Isobel, the actors shone brightest in their ensemble work, both vocal and movement. Sung sections (though sometimes reflecting odd musical choices) were beautiful and stirring; playground scenes were delightfully energetic and erratic, featuring some wonderful physical characterization.
What struck me as the company’s biggest challenge though was indicating the doubleness at play in Thompson’s dialogue. Characters often speak haltingly and assertively at the same time – that is, their own thoughts surprise them, even as they come spewing forth in speech. It’s a tension that makes Thompson’s often poetic, heightened language work. Spoken too easily, knowingly, the words seem unnecessarily contrived and the spark of discovery imbued in them gets lost. Also, the play’s tone, though certainly often satirical, veered a few times (through accent, for instance) into a distanced irony more appropriate to sketch comedy.
Lion in the Streets, in all its provocative content, is ultimately a plea for compassion – for ourselves and for others. In passionately trumpeting this call, the NTS graduating class’s production certainly succeeds. As house lights were raised at show’s end, and Isobel smiled at us unrelentingly, she defied us to think of a reason why we shouldn’t smile back.