Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat was the latest production from the Greenwood Theatre Company, running at Islington’s Hen and Chickens last week. Written in 2002 as a response to the 9/11 terror attacks, a key moment in modern history, this revival is timely as America adapts to another critical moment of change.
Set on 12 September 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it is a two-hander between Ben and Abby. Both worked in the World Trade Center, and have been having an affair for quite some time. Ben, a married man, should have been in the office that day but was instead with Abby – since the attacks he has hidden at Abby’s place and not contacted anyone, so is officially ‘missing’. And in this situation ‘missing’ more often than not means ‘dead’… Rather than put his family out of their misery, he is actually contemplating the unthinkable: he wants to use the tragedy to his advantage to get out of his old life and start anew with his mistress.
Starting with the very big picture, what LaBute’s script does so brilliantly is slowly but surely peel away the layers until it focuses solely on Ben and Abby. Because it isn’t really about 9/11 at all, but the very human flaw of thinking the seemingly unthinkable. We all do it from time to time, but at what point do you start acting on these instinctive thoughts? The details of the back story are teased out masterfully; you think you know what’s going on, but it keeps you on the edge of your seat as every new piece of information is revealed.
The set is a functional small apartment living room, though hung up to one side is a vivid picture of the Twin Towers in the midst of destruction. Just enough to remind the audience what the play’s backdrop is – almost like it’s sitting on Ben’s shoulder trying to help him make the right decision.
Both actors convey the humour and emotion with which the script is laced; the audience’s attitudes towards the characters shift with every new reveal, yet (looking back) the portrayals remain consistent.
As Abby, Isabella Verrico (Associate Artist at Greenwood Theatre Company) couples her frustration at Ben’s indecision with a clear love and affection for him, in spite of everything. Jonathan Blakeley shows Ben to be a man of complex emotions, and in the midst of a real dilemma: is his relationship with Abby really worth giving up his kids for? Both Verrico and Blakeley have excellent comic timing, making the moments of levity really shine.
My verdict? A powerful and intimate revival with affecting performances – you leave wondering what choice you would make in the same situation…
The Mercy Seat ran at the Hen and Chickens Theatre from 2-6 May 2017.