The official summary reads: A small boy is driving his mother to distraction – waking at night, hearing phantom noises and fixating on his absent father. When he glimpses a figure prowling the house at night, a shadow is cast which gradually strips away his childhood certainties.
And this is probably the least favorable synopsis one could give – even though the play derives its title from these first scenes, where Julie tries to calm her son by talking about his nightmares and calling him a “haunted child”. But there is so much more to this play by Joe Penhall – the little boy just seems to be a catalyst for all that ensues in the next two hours.
Because the play does not just deal with the hauntings of a little boy, but with everything that haunts the grown-ups too – their fear of being left alone, their need to belong, their sense of responsibility or their lack thereof and their regrets. There is a veil of sadness hanging over this family, that clouds their judgement and makes them vulnerable – just as vulnerable as a little boy who all of a sudden hears someone moving in the attic, hears noises that shouldn’t be there.
His mother doesn’t believe him, until one night she stumbles down the stairs and almost runs into her husband Douglas, who disappeared weeks ago, left work and family behind to find a way out of his bottomless desperation, his depression that had engulfed him since his father had died years ago.
But the man who comes back into Julie’s life is not the man she knew – not only has he lost his teeth and a considerable amount of weight, judging by the way his clothes are hanging on him, he also looks disheveled, his hair too long and his beard scraggly. But what is probably the most disturbing: Douglas has found religion – in his quest to escape his desperation he has been picked up by an apparently charismatic guru, who deprived him of sleep, food and drink and pressed him into a set of rules that leave no room for individuality. “I believed you were dead – and in some ways this is worse…” she says at one point when faced with alien ideas and concepts that have no place in her reality. And yet – still Julie hopes for a continuation of their life together as they knew it – a life spent as a family, when the brainwashed stranger in her husband’s body responds to her just like her husband did – even though his guru had told them to abandon all carnality for good (and masturbate to specific pictures provided by the guru if nature becomes too overwhelming).
The next morning becomes unbearable to Julie, though. Douglas, guilt ridden that he has sinned, does a weird cleansing ritual and plans on going back to his group – after selling the house that Julie tried to make into a home for their son, handing the money over to his guru as an entrance fee. It is only then Julie accepts that he is beyond help from her – now she is fighting for her child as Douglas tries to take the boy with him – a child needs adventure! he says while she says: a child needs structure and rules. He leaves.
And comes back dirty, battered and alone – without money, he was worth nothing to his group, was nothing and abandoned again and so came back to a place where mother and son had come to a fragile peace about the fact that Douglas would never return. He comes home to his suitcases packed…
The play gives you flashes of lives, glimpses into the souls of three people, with little structure, but a lot of psychological insight wrapped into monologues and dialogues that have you poised on the edge of your seat. At first I missed the classical structure of any play but now I think Penhall’s way of telling this story, in scenes that seem to be ripped out of the lives of his protagonists, even deepens the drama and heightens the sense of urgency that comes with Douglas’ desperate attempts of finding any meaning in his life.
Of course the play depends on excellent actors to pull off the tension, to make the drama believable. The Royal Court Theatre was therefore very lucky to get Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels as their Julie and Douglas. Both actors have known each other for years, and been friends, and their rapport on stage is amazing. Their intensity and the chemistry they have together create the perfect environment for a midnblowingly brilliant performance. These two together create exactly the sort of magic theatre should be. Such is rare (only Holding The Man comes to mind as equally awe inspiring) and should be celebrated. And it will make me come back in January.
so I saw it again – and it was even better. They had tightened the play, tweaked and cut it – not even that much, but obviously very well, because it now worked better, the scenes flowing into each other with greater precision without losing any significant text or subtext. On the contrary – now the play makes one thing clear: They are all haunted.
One of the pivotal scenes is where Douglas tries to convince Julie to come with him into his cult – into his world – a world where there is guidance, where there are no responsibilities other than observe the spiritual leader’s words. A world where they can discover what they really want, according to Doug, where they can be children again. And Julie is on the verge of accepting all this – a tempting thought: to be freed from your responsibilities as a grown up, a mother, a working class woman, and being guided to spirituality, to become a child… but what about her son? He IS a child – what is he supposed to become? And how are they supposed to have more children within this group if they have to forsake all carnality? And as she asks this questions, the answers Doug is providing sound like out of a badly written book, they are empty. Julie is too grounded to be sucked into the cult’s rationalising – she sends her husband away, without his money.
When he comes back battered and destroyed, kneeling at Julie’s feet, it becomes clear: He is the child desperately seeking any kind of hold on life. And even his strange ramblings about his soul being part of his son, his own father’s soul being part of him and therefore part of his son too, so his son might even be his father – a litany that had confused his beloved child, becomes clear and true to an extent. Because his own son now stands next to his mother, and both pat the sobbing man’s head, a comforting gesture used to calm a little boy…
the packed suitcases now symbolising more an end of an era, the era of Doug being in charge, rather than his ejection.
As I said before – the play grew and got even better, both Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels were riveting, and made the audience geel for and with them. I am very lucky to have seen this play at the beginning and the end of the run. The last performances were absolutely AWESOME!