Devil in Disguise
Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle is a bracing black comedy, an exploration of the nature of evil. But if the topic is murky, the play is not. It's as straightforward, clean and ruthless as a pen stroke.
The action takes place in a milieu we recognize from Alan Bennett and filmmaker Mike Leigh: the home of a drearily conventional English middle-class family. Tom and Amy Bates live with their daughter, Pattie, who has been brain-damaged since she was injured in a hit-and-run accident two years earlier. Pattie is strapped to a bed. Her hands twist; her face contorts; she makes odd grunting and whimpering sounds. Tom insists that she's in a vegetative state, because "if she comprehends more than she can communicate, it's too much to bear." Amy maintains hope that her daughter will awaken. Meanwhile, the couple's life together is a nightmare of gray paralysis. Amy takes care of Pattie. Tom bullies Amy, criticizing and belittling her, demanding hot food when he returns from work. Inch by inch, the couple seems to be sinking into soft, stifling mud.
A young man enters, claiming to have been Pattie's lover. Martin offers hope of reprieve. He loves Pattie. He'll be happy to serve as her nurse so that Amy can leave the house once in a while. He'll even cook the hot suppers Tom craves. In short, he's a miracle worker, an unexpected angel of mercy. Or perhaps a cheap con man who's tracked Tom down after bumping into him on the street and relieving him of his wallet. Or perhaps the Devil himself. Sulfuric fumes linger about him. A clap of reproachful thunder sounds when he kneels with Amy to pray.
You finally think you've got everything sussed out, but the play keeps turning around on you. Martin is evil, no doubt about it. But so much of what he says to Tom and Amy seems not only true, but wise, and his influence on their lives is sometimes benign. Tom is a member of the racist National Front. Through a rhetorical trick, Martin turns Tom's own arguments against him and shows him their folly. If, as Shakespeare once noted, "the Devil can cite scripture for his purpose," perhaps he can combat racism too. Or is Martin an angel instead, using the most hideous actions as instruments of redemption?
It's easy to see why the BBC, having commissioned this bleakly mocking script in 1976, would get cold feet and refuse to show it. It's not just that the play contains a couple of scenes that make your skin crawl; it's the way it places you on moral quicksand.
Scott Gibson directs Conundrum State Productions' telling presentation of Brimstone and Treacle. Jim Hunt and Deborah Persoff play the Bateses. During the play's opening moments, both of them seem a little plodding and self-conscious, their English accents forced. But pretty soon they warm to their roles -- or perhaps we understand better who they are. Persoff's Amy is as mindlessly racist and unthinking as her husband. Her religious convictions and her hopes for her daughter are Hallmark-card saccharine. And yet this is a touching portrayal. You marvel at the gentleness of Amy's hands as she strokes Pattie's hair or attempts to feed her, and you empathize with her straightforward joy when she's released from the house to go to the hairdresser. Even her growing attraction to Martin seems sweetly foolish rather than repellent. When Amy says, "I feel a great peace falling upon my soul" and remarks of her brutally violated daughter, "There's a light in her eyes," it's intensely ironic. By the end of the play, however, you realize that she may have been right, and the irony twists around on itself like a double helix.
Under Martin's influence, Tom begins to show the complexities underlying his bluff, thick-skinned facade. He moves from defensiveness to shame and puzzlement. "All I want is the England I used to know," he says pathetically, adding, "There are no glow worms anymore." Hunt inhabits these transitions fully and makes them moving and real.
In the 1982 film version of Brimstone and Treacle, Martin was played by Sting; in many productions, he's roguishly seductive. But as interpreted by Josh Hartwell, he's a very ordinary young guy. Sometimes he's full of brash confidence, but often he just looks thoughtful or bemused, as if he, too, were wondering who the hell he is. This is an ambiguous and quietly effective performance. As Pattie, Jacky Jones spends the entire evening lying on a pallet with her dark hair flowing over the pillow, turning her head from side to side, making unworldly sounds or drooling mashed banana. This might seem a thankless role, but it isn't. It's central. Unspeaking, unable to communicate, Pattie holds the key to the play's meaning. Jones gives the role full value, and I found my eye returning to her again and again as I tried to decode her expression.
There's a slow deliberateness to this production that works well because the script is riveting and the performers are fully involved in what they're doing. The pauses aren't blank; they're full of meaning (as are the evocative sounds created by sound designer Scott Anderson). This is one of the more interesting, intelligent and well-mounted pieces of theater around. Go see it.
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