Despite the geographical distance between New Zealand and Ireland, the energy and humanity brought to the stage in Restless Ecstasy’s production of playwright Gary Henderson’s Skin Tight at the New Theatre, has carried its energy intact to its Dublin debut. An investigation of the dynamics of a relationship, Skin Tight won a Fringe First in 1994 and has been staged internationally ever since. This production is the award-winning play’s first Irish staging, and Restless Ecstasy believes it to be the first time a New Zealand playwright has had their work produced in Ireland.
At its core, the premise of Skin Tight is remarkably simple: love is complicated and memory of love differs. A couple, Tom (Barry John Kinsella) and Elizabeth (Madeline Dunne) have weathered war and peace, life and loss. In the 70 minutes that they tell the story of their relationship to one another, Elizabeth “remembers everything,” and yet, Tom can still surprise her.
Skin Tight explores the constant shifts and changes in a relationship, juxtapositioning the different aspects and episodes of Tom and Elizabeth’s connection. Violence and rage give way to unexpected tenderness and an uneasy truce, and within moments, anger will explode again. Under the direction of Dubliner Owen Lindsay, the couple argues with a heightened theatricality. Initially, she is antagonistic; he attempts to diffuse her anger, but as the power dynamics and agency shifts, and then it is his rage and anxieties with which she must contend. Restless Energy’s production encourages the audience to bypass the artifice, however, and experience the energy and emotion that lies underneath. This understanding is achieved via the pacing and movement of the acting, brought together artfully by the sound and light design of Colin Doran. The production further enables the characters to operate in a surreal world without the audience doubting that credibility of the relationship. Indeed, their violence is often so convincing it creates its own problems; for example, it is difficult to fathom why Tom would allow Elizabeth near him with a straight-edge razor, mere moments after they had been at one another’s throats.
The rapid shifts from different heightened emotional states do jar occasionally, and the more tender scenes are communicated less smoothly. Yet, the stunted transitions between violence and serenity can be understood as a metaphor for the wars and periods of uneasy peace the couple has had to negotiate throughout their lives. Apart from occasionally mentioning names from their native land, Tom and Elizabeth give us little cause to believe that this play is not simply set anywhere, at any time. It was easy to leave with the impression that details were tacked onto the core of the story, a case of context after the fact. Nonetheless, it is this approach which also gives the play a universality. The nudity towards the end of the piece feels gratuitous or somewhat contrived, but once again, it doesn’t unbalance the integrity of the piece.
Overall, Restless Ecstasy’s production of Skin Tight holds the balance between the universal and particular elements of the play. There is a case to be made, that after 25 years, it has dated somewhat and lost a degree of its impact, but as an example of theatre stripped back down to the bones of human interactions and stories, Henderson’s play remains engaging and relevant.
Restless Ecstasy’s production of Gary Henderson’s Skin Tight, is directed by Owen Lindsay, at the New Theatre, Templebar, August 6th -17th.
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This post was written by Síofra Ní Shluaghadháin.
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