Written By Peter Arnott
Directed by Kolbrún Björt Sigfúsdóttir
In the betwixt and between, conjured before an audience, A woman and a man (Crocodile Fever’s Meghan Tyler, and Simon Donaldson) sit on the Traverse 2 stage, encircled by a harmless but clearly definitive barrier. No locale is offered, no sense of time is clear. We don’t know their names or their relation – assuming there even is one, to one another.
Hell, we’re not even sure if this the initial moments of Variant set up an intense horror or a budding romantic comedy. And though, with hindsight, breadcrumbs litter the production, Variant presents itself as an enigma wrapped within a soft, muted grey-scale abstraction. Previous CATS award winner (for The Signalman) Arnott opened their 50th professionally produced piece to strong reception in Glasgow, and now, staged for the seventh time, this abstract marvel punishes, rewards, confines and liberates audiences to a limbo of performance
Uncomfortable, Arnott’s piece sits in an uncanny valley of a world we recognise but don’t inhabit: of the slight oddities and de-synchs which plague the pair, begining rather mundanely sitting apart, perfectly pleasant, as the man reads a book. A book which he has no recollection but can quote with ease, but undoubtedly not its title. Everything initially appears inconsequential. But steady, as revelations open and references are drawn audiences grasp at any clues Arnott peppers the floor with, transforming the room into truffle-hunting pigs nosing at the inflexions of performance and direction.
A throw-away comment about the woman’s hair accelerates the man’s life in a different direction, Simon Donaldson doing tremendous work to act as a placeholder for areas of the audience – lost, but with a vague ember of the familiar. Gradually as the frustration and desperation build, there’s a rawness in the performance which garners sympathy. Before Arnott swipes it away with a simple reminder asking what falsehoods lie ahead. Donaldson, like the audience, has pangs of hunger for some semblance of the familiar -a storyline, a hook. Variant isn’t theatre with which most are acquainted: and deserves credit for being precisely that.
Things are never what they seem, and in keeping with this theme Kolbrún Björt Sigfúsdóttir’s mastery of pacing and time sets the piece apart, tightening the tension without fear of snapping; it draws us into a riddle without frustration. Gradually, the relevance of Gemma Patchett and Jonny Scott’s devised circle of Hell becomes more effective in simplicity – our focus is on the absurdity of it all, to the performance and writing. Indeed, in a ‘man behind the curtain’ moment, Ross Kirkland’s lighting breaks the cardinal sins of the theatre in a demonstration of Arnott’s openness to confronting the intention of theatrical storytelling: limitations, and a step to removing that boundary of safety the audience has, they are no longer detached when watching Variant – we’re all very much a part of this.
Arnott’s grand design unravels into neither as unblemished nor original as it may initially seems, its talons retracted somewhat forcibly by its own talent: the ending simply cannot and was never intended to live to the expectation. It cannot be a satisfactory rounded performance, and that’s precisely the intention: Meghan Tyler informs us so exceptionally early into the show, dangling such meta-narrative storytelling mechanic to feed the ravenous audience, it’s tremendously difficult not to be enraptured throughout their performance, a profound intensity to the serenity: at no point do the audience truly trust anything which passes their lips, yet theirs is the only voice we have to listen.
The wheel of life continuously spins, and as audiences hop off this particular turn of the cycle, questioning if this was all a dreamscape, a punishment, or even a reward, Variant lives on for another performance. Another day. Another version. In an eternal spiral of repetitive suffering, Variant finds no definitive conclusion to the narrative. But maybe, hopefully, tomorrow may be different. There’s only one way to find out. Are you along for the journey?
Addictive in Uncertainty
Variant runs at the Traverse Theatre until April 1st. Tuesday – Saturday at 13.00pm.
Running time – fourty-five minutes without interval.
Tickets begin from £12.00 or £17.50 with pie and beverage, and may be obtained here.
Photo Credit – Tommy Ga-Ken Wan