GASPS, SHRIEKS, ELECTRICITY AND SADNESS
Coincidentally (and after a week when loveless porn and sex education were splattered all over the news) the Twitterati gasped at Darla and Jon of Topeka, who are still keeping up abstinence a year after their wedding, to be “double holy”. They say that when Bedroom Thoughts occur, she spritzes cold waterand he “eats a whole raw potato to take him out of the mood”.
That Ruskin-like sexual taboo took us nicely into Sarah Ruhl’s remarkable play, born on Broadway and first seen here at the Theatre Royal Bath. It is set in the home of an 1880’s American doctor, beautifully built on two levels with swags, ruffles, piano, curly wallpaper downstairs and stern panelling in the consulting-room above. Dr Givings‘ speciality is female hysteria: weepiness caused by “pressure in the womb” and treated by causing “paroxysm”. Until lately he – or his nurse assistant Annie, who has a touching emotional subplot – brought it on manually; thanks to Mr Edison he now has a vibrating appliance. Paroxysm is, of course, orgasm. Ruhl , fascinated by this quirk of medical history, with director Laurence Boswell and some very brave actors achieves both a great many laughs of the Harry-met-Sally variety, and some sad and profound insights into human unhappiness.
At first we are drawn into mere absurdity, as the doctor (Jason Hughes, stiffly earnest) treats a patient (Flora Montgomery) who has become so depressed she sees ghosts in the curtains. She has never experienced such abandonment (“If I felt such things in the presence of my husband I would be so embarrassed I would leave the room”). In medical surroundings however her shrieks contrast with the prim detachment of the doctor. At least until he turns the machine up and the lights fuse.
Meanwhile downstairs his wife, a chirpy, bright young woman played with enchanting eccentricity by Natalie Casey, is sorrowing because she has no milk to feed her baby. She hires a wet-nurse, herself grieving for a dead infant. The theme is being divided from your biological nature – whether feeding your child or experiencing a climax with your lover. And while I suspect some men will just laugh, I found that evocation of womanly dislocations very moving. Not least in Madeline Appiah’s fine performance as the dignified “darkie” wet-nurse, trying neither to love the baby or to hate it for not being her dead son.
A male hysteric – an artist played with gorgeous yellow-book silliness by Edward Bennett – tips the second act into rudery (he gets the machine, too) and offers the doctor’s wife romantic visions. Some all-girls electrical experimentation also leads to a revealing conversation with the wet-nurse, who – being free of all this white-madam refinement – knows perfectly well what orgasms are for. Conclusions arrive, albeit a bit slowly.
Ruhl’s writing is beautiful and adventurous: I love her reflections on the electrical age ending the old “solemnity” of candle-flames. Equally often it is snortingly funny. Take the doctor’s outrage after his wife has been fraternizing with the artist: “How do you know about biscotti!?” Ugh, Italian ways! Biscotti can lead to all manner of smut. A chap must keep tight hold of his raw potato.
box office 0844 264 2140 to 4 Jan. Producers: Peter Huntley and Just for Laughs Theatricals, in association with Theatre Royal Bath