Nightfall concerns Edward and Emily Kingsley an upper middle-class couple whose daughter Cora has mysteriously left home with no explanation. She’s been missing for a number of years when the Kingsley’s are visited by Kate Saskell (Victoria Longley) a go-between who has come to prepare the way for Cora’s possible return. I asked Ian Scott and Margaret Cameron to elaborate on the construction of their remarkable performances in this production.
Margaret: The approach to the play for me was a matter of the whole body physically listening. The listening body is like an animal: you can get caught, suspended; you’re hunting the sense and the emotional sense. Jenny Kemp is a very good director for me in that she loves to see that. If you get stranded halfway, held in space, Jenny’s in a state of delight because it’s dangerous. She credits the invisible world. She understands it as present.
Joanna’s text is like a score. There’s ‘beat, pause and silence.’ And there’s ‘dot, dot, dot and dash.’ And they are absolutely accurate, except she’s prepared to shift them around if, after trying everything, they can’t be spoken.
Ian: The words dry up but something else keeps going and I’ve realised there’s a whole world there in those dots. You can be observing someone, or your face carries the thought. More than other plays I’ve done, I think this sort of writing can produce some wonderful performances where there are no words.
Margaret: That’s going on all the time in these characters. Emily goes into a place where she can’t talk. It’s as if the play’s a grid and there are references all the time to things that can’t be said.
Ian: If you took a negative of all those pauses and put them on paper, you’d have another map, another text through the play. There are a lot of things that Ed says, like, “What is it you’re…Just say what it is you’re insinuating...Where did this all…I can’t…” He can’t actually use words because they fix it and he can’t have that happen.
That inability to speak is expressed physically. For instance, I became aware of all the little muscles along the side of Ian’s jaw. Also Dale Ferguson’s design locks you into a small square surrounded by the outside dark. How do you respond to the physical confines of the space?
Ian: You think of it as a technical thing—that you can’t occupy a place and stay there—because the emotions of the unfolding will project you into different places. Jenny was very conscious that it has to arrive naturally. So then you realise other things are important: that you can’t use your back to the audience; that you can be in a position where you’re uncomfortable.
Margaret: You know that your whole body is being read, wherever it is. You are completely visible. There’s also the wonderful exaggeration of the in and the out. Because Cora may be out there in the garden; it feels like an amphitheatre and you’re able to have double faces. You present one face inside the living room and then you turn to the audience and go, “What is she talking about?” So the audience is in the place of reading the inner feelings of the characters when they’re looking out.
Are these elements written into the script?
Margaret: They’re in the design, I think, and the direction.
Ian: I think of moments of stillness and the moment in the play when Kate starts telling us that Cora has been depressed. She’s revealing bits and pieces of information and the room goes almost deathly still.
Margaret: Every single night, the whole theatre goes…
Ian: And we’re still too because…
Ian: Receiving that information and being victims of Kate’s knowledge produces a kind of paralysis. When that breaks we say things like, “Let’s get this thing back on the road” and we all have trigger points. One of Ed’s is to get up and tell a story and rebel against the visitor. The stories become physical escapes. Sometimes those things follow in a predictable fashion but there are unusual moments like when Emily hits Ed. It is written in very detailed fashion but there is something else there that takes over despite the way it’s written. It’s a particular form of physical moment.
Margaret: The play starts right on an edge but then it’s actually something that needs to be held and contained and contained and contained. You can’t break out of its parameters or it loses resonance. It doesn’t hold. And formally speaking, you have to hold and hold and hold. You never really go for the dramatic moment. You just hold form. Then, right at the very end, it breaks. Emily is trapped behind the couch and she does this elision. Her line is, “I, I felt less than nothing. I can tell you I wanted to vanish.” The audience might think that she’s answering the question, “What was it that Cora remembered?” but she’s not. She’s eliding under emotional pressure into just talking. Structurally, if it dips emotionally too strongly anywhere else, you lose that break. And it’s a very subtle breaking point. So the drama leaks, it leaks out of the structure if you don’t play it muscularly.
Are your performances fixed, do they vary much?
Ian: It’s one of the tightest shows I’ve ever done.
Margaret: But the personal physicality I find shifts around depending on how the emotional graph of that particular evening goes.
Can you describe this emotion graph?
Margaret: It begins and that’s all I know really. And I know I must have a particular cocktail ready—Emily’s cocktail. Her emotional/physical world is adrenalin, huge expectation and capping and locking a terrible fear that things might not be all right. It’s a paradox she starts with, an expectation equaled by massive fear. And they’re balancing each other. That’s her place. And she keeps working towards the belief that Cora will come in that door at any moment. She’s sincerely trying to help Kate. And the pressure will shift me around emotionally so that if on a particular evening there might be a point reached in the graph, which is a little bit unexpected or the intensity is less than last night, what happens is that it goes somewhere underneath. It’ll curve around and sort of push you in another sequence. So you’re playing the essentials every night but where they occur is moveable and very volatile.
It’s quite frightening to perform. At certain pitches in the thing when you’re going along, like when Ed suggests to me what this woman is actually thinking, Emily’s response is silence and then, “But that is…but…look Miss Saskell, look, I understand that you are…” She goes somewhere else. “You are concerned for Cora,” She goes walking into the unknown all the time. “But if this is, if Cora said, if that is true…” And I find it hard. You’ve got all this uh-uh-uh stuff going on all the time. You’re swallowing like that all the time. You’re swallowing the language and at a certain point, you’ll have a spot where it just goes Pchew! And you’ll get a chance to respond.
Ian: In the end, it all comes out.
Margaret: There’s a lot of ‘burping’ going on. LAUGHS
Ian: The moment when you hit Ed, and from your point of view, there’s a release, but also for the audience a sense of relief that…
That a sentence has been completed.
Margaret: There’s been a break.
It’s a very powerful moment.
Margaret: It’s also impotent. She only enacts it. It’s not the actual break. The pain becomes visible but it’s not resolved. Then begins the lie. Is she telling the truth or is she just trying to get Cora back? In the first scene Emily says, “Imagine ripping down the walls.” I’m going pitter patter on Ed’s chest and then I turn and the whole house tilts and I see the walls of the suburban house gone and I’m just floating in orbit. From then on, for me the play becomes very abstract. I’m actually working in an amphitheatre then, not in a living room set. Right out. Right out. At the very end of the play I try to use this. I empty my mind as if to say to the audience: my mind is the theatre; it is a space for your imagination. Whatever you can imagine is here. I am empty now, so what do you see? Whatever you see is possible. This transaction really to me is what the play is about.
How does Elizabeth Drake’s score affect your performances?
Ian: I say, “You know, I had a dream last night that I had been living in a world without sound.” I use it to quiet Emily but when I think of the way the sound is used in the production, I think of that story, “I wondered for a moment if this was death—to be somehow conscious but without feeling. Then the noise started, Earth music.” The pulsing of the sound throughout the play is a bit like the mind seesawing, the inner things that need to come out and the outer world sort of changing places until finally one wins.
Margaret: It creates a fantastic ‘listening.’ It actually enables the play to go a bit abstract towards the end I think. It pulls the walls of the living room down to way outside the theatre because it amplifies the listening, and the silence. It is possible then to become very intimate vocally at certain points. You can really do things in a kinesthetic way.
Ian: I think it tunes the audience.
Margaret: You can touch people almost because the voice does. It goes into the body. Because it shifts around the listening air, you’re able to touch that. And it is also possible to locate the audience towards the end of the play. Sometimes I have this feeling, as Emily, coming up front saying all that stuff. I see people after that breaking point with the hitting, I see someone sitting forward like this and I think, ‘Do you need me to say this? I will say this for you.’ There’s a transference that goes on. It’s possible to be very plain with this text. Just to say it. And I’ve found that from the very beginning. Just to read it. Just-to-say-it.
Do these qualities make Nightfall an effective piece of writing for performance for you?
Margaret: I do think it is well written and there’s Jenny Kemp’s angle on the play, her a priori position that the unconscious is territory. It is a landscape and it involves travel and it has treachery and it dips and there is an underworld. It’s almost like this play meeting that idea and not much more has to be done. When you’re with a person, a certain transmission goes on. So there has been a transmission of Jenny Kemp’s consciousness, mine and Ian’s and Victoria’s. We participate. I love the fact that the characters are intelligent, that they see themselves but that they’re also poised on this little pivot where the drama has to take place and the stakes are high. To fall off is to drown in a whole lot of feeling. And I’m fascinated by the capacity to play that little pivot and to observe and just keep observing it.
Ian: Kate has this line, “This is normal, don’t you realize?” It reminds you that in the everyday, people say such things. Wonderful films like American Beauty and Happiness uncover things that were always regarded as the things you didn’t talk about. They deal with ideas with such openness and they’re having the success they deserve. This is a play that takes those ideas and deals with them in a similar way. We have to find new ways to look at manners or morality and social convention. There’s something really strong there. At the end of the millennium, these works point us towards new ways of thinking and working, a new kind of art, which actually bypasses the blockbuster.
Finally, can you describe what it feels like to walk around all day with a play inside you?
Ian: It’s a kind of burden that’s carried. There are some plays that leave you completely exhausted but refreshed.
Margaret: You can’t really rest because you have to begin again the next night. There’s a certain amount of emotional courage we all bring to it. It’s not as though in your resting you can retreat into a kind of inertia. You actually…I can feel in me just a little bit of a gulp going on all day. It has to be considered again this evening. And it really is ‘considered again’ because there are unknowns.
Ian: It’s a constant kind of grappling with this thing and trying to find the way to be true to yourself, to know when to get angry, when to give in to sleep, when to get up and do something else.
Margaret: It’s a physical task—athletic. You look at someone who’s training and they do this gigantic run—their stomach is gone when they get to that line. Sometimes I’ve come offstage and looked at my body and it’s hollowed out from holding it, for this tiny voice to come out.
Ian: You try to use all the actors’ training but you can’t be stress-free when you’re going into these sorts of territories. I suppose what you do is try to minimise the damage and to be as aware as you can. Particular parts of the body are affected. When I come offstage, my back! I think it’s standing behind the sofa when Emily’s confessing.
Margaret: I usually come off panting. I feel sick at the thought of doing it again tonight.
Ian: So, we’re both on wheatgrass and guarana. No 17 from the Kings Cross Juice Shop.
BOTH BREAK INTO LAUGHTER.
RealTime 37, June-July 2000, p29
© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com