We can all come to some agreement about a definition of bread, but what on earth is ‘love’? That’s the question troubling retired estate agent Michael Smith at the centre of Robert Gillespie’s new play (which premiered last year)Love, Question Mark.
Happily widowed for three years and devoted to his stamp collection, Michael doesn’t go out of his way to extend his search for love. Be-cardiganed, middle-aged and beige, he’s (on the outside at least) conforming to society’s expectations of him, but he can’t bring himself to identify with the label of respectability and a peaceful widowerhood. Inside he’s left questioning if his ordinary, bland marriage that received wisdom tells him was the definition of love deserves to have been called anything of the sort. Unable to suppress a late sexual awakening, Michael’s curiosity about the nature of love isn’t the only thing that’s aroused within him.
Enter Maria, the beautiful younger woman shipped over at great expense from Argentina. She’s endured an unimaginably tough upbringing and been the victim of male brutality and rape throughout her young life as a direct result of her physical beauty. In return for food, shelter and witty repartee, Michael asks only for on-demand sex from the sensual young woman who is, their differing financial situations aside, way out of his league.
The story develops as a fascinating power play between Michael and Maria. The sands of their unequal relationship slowly shift so that Maria, dependent upon Michael for survival and shackled to him by circumstance, essentially has the status of a prisoner (arguably not unreflective of many actual marriages). Her pleas to be allowed out of the house to pop to Tesco for some milk comically but concisely highlight that even the mundane, when denied, can enter the realm of fantasy. Having so carefully picked out the polar opposite qualities of Michael and Maria, Gillespie later reverses them for dramatic effect as the boundaries between the two become blurred.
Love, Question Mark is a complex and in many ways unorthodox play. It opens with an address to the audience by Michael, and the fourth wall is broken periodically by both characters as a direct challenge to one’s prejudices. Whilst ideas are bounced off the audience, the emotional core remains the province of the two leads, who periodically break off into other characters from their respective histories to illustrate the ways in which their differing worldviews have been shaped.
A hugely enjoyable character trait is Michael’s interest in the scientific explanations for love, and he has some glorious monologues about the breeding habits of chimpanzees (humans’ nearest cousins in the evolutionary tree of life) as well as about the chemical reactions that occur in various parts of the brain that form the physical basis of our emotional lives. Throw in a hand-written email about the pair-bonding of swans that floats down from the heavens at the act-one climax (and who sends that? After all, the recipient Michael doesn’t believe in a creator…), and you have an imaginative piece that leaves myriad possibilities for the second half. If you go in for straightforward and predictable, then Love, Question Mark, which successfully and unapologetically challenges ideals of love through lively and inventive theatre, might prove too richly brewed for your blood.
A complex play like Love, Question Mark demands good performances in order for it to work; and the fact that it’s a two-hander makes the casting all the more crucial. Thankfully, both actors play their parts brilliantly, and the sparkle between the two is captivating. Stuart Sessions is instantly endearing as Michael. He may be playing Mr Ordinary, but his comic timing is spot-on, and he comes across like a creature from an Alan Bennett play but with edges rough enough to take out a few unguarded eyes. The subtlety and surface pleasantness with which he condemns Maria to sexual servitude was a very brave decision by Sessions, and this pays off hugely in the second half when Michael, losing control of Maria, his temper and his mind, becomes more sympathetic the further he is pushed towards base brutality.
Clare Cameron’s Maria is equally captivating. She plays Maria’s inherent sensuality and romanticism with evident relish. The far greater challenge for her is to retain the audience’s sympathy when Maria slips into malice, wishing to inflict revenge on the easily-manipulated Michael for all the wrongs that men have perpetrated on her. It’s a clever twist on the gaoled becomes the gaoler theme; but Cameron never loses sight of Maria’s vulnerability. Together, Michael and Maria are flawed, and at times unpleasant, unpredictable and unwilling to admit they’re wrong. In capturing two identifiable humans (rather than the poetic ideal of humanity) Gillespie crafts a rewarding emotional journey for both of his characters that cements in his exploration of love a readily identifiable core.
Simple, and consequently effective lighting and sound effects, coupled with an uncluttered space is a commendably confident way to allow the performances to carry the show. A discreet screen, with the word “love” emblazoned across it as an ironic nod to the decor of emporiums of a lascivious nature, provides a natural boundary for ‘what goes on behind closed doors’ at the back of the stage.
There are plenty of wonderful one-liners to enjoy, as well as a deliciously satirical view of the conventional wisdom on the subject trotted out by religious authorities and their ilk. Love, Question Mark is often laugh-out-loud funny; though in Brechtian style there are moments of humour that leave you questioning your taste and morals.
The theme proves to be one ideally explored in the theatre, and precisely what the stage is for. Love, Question Markprobes the nature of sexual relationships with wit, honesty and raw emotion. It may not provide any easy answers, and the frank depiction of the implausibility of the western ideal of monogamy – and the equally frank messy reality, can be as discomfiting as it is thought-provoking. It’s the kind of play that leaves its ideas reverberating in your head for some time afterwards. That it’s very funny is the perfect way for the show to draw you in and keep you hooked.