By Amy Herzog
Directed by Oliver Driver
Presented by Silo Theatre
Herald Theatre, Auckland | August 28-September 20
You can’t come away from Belleville feeling nothing. That’s one of the highest compliments you can pay a piece of theatre, or any piece of art. It is a play that pushes against an audience, daring them to hate it, then pulling them back in to love it or hate it some more. It is an incredibly brave piece of theatre, and one of the most unsettling shows I’ve seen in some time.
On the page, Amy Herzog’s play seems like a standard domestic drama: a couple in their late twenties have moved to Paris because the guy got a job and the girl wanted to move to her dream city. They lie to each other, repeatedly. Complications arise, and things end up a lot less pretty than they started off.
However, Silo’s production takes this premise so much further than that haphazard synopsis would suggest. This is no domestic drama; this is domestic horror. Herzog uses her two ex-pats, Abby (Sophie Henderson) and Zack (Matt Whelan), to expose the worst parts of my generation, and the generation of many people watching the show on opening night. The self-conscious, precisely articulated neuroses are perfectly put on display in the first half, in ways that made me hate these characters and also recognise them as innately part of me and my friends. The darker parts of these characters are then exposed and brutally expunged in the second half; reaching for dreams that far exceed our grasp and a happiness that is more a word than anything truly achievable.
The two foils, Alione (Tawanda Maniyimo) and Amina (Karima Madut), are a young Senegalese-French couple who manage the property that Abby and Zack are renting, and function nicely as a thematic counterpoint to the two leads: they resemble all the good, well-meaning people who have been screwed over by the simultaneous idealism and shittiness of our generation, and the ones who are left to clean up when the end finally comes.
All four actors are great. Even with little time onstage, Maniyimo and Madut make an impression and their final moments give the play a true weight. Matt Whelan and Sophie Henderson have larger roles, and much larger arcs to play around with. As the charming, but slacker-ish Zack, Matt Whelan sets up many keys aspects of his character early on that pay off towards the end of the play, and it’s an utter joy to watch him tear the layers off his character until he’s pure, shattered id.
In the hardest role in the play, a physically and emotionally demanding character, Sophie Henderson is monstrous, ugly, and utterly tremendous. An inherently likeable presence, we are constantly asked and almost begged to hate this character as she makes bad choices, says bad things, and acts like a spoiled brat. But when all the cards are laid out, her Abby is an empathetic character—one who has been lied to not by the person she loves, but by the entire world—and it’s no wonder that she is the way she is. Henderson commits to every nuance and darkness of this character, turning “Give me my phone!” into some horrifying refrain that hits far too close to home, and the moments of physical bravery and commitment are where the true horror of the play lies. The production orbits around her, as well it should, and it’s her performance that kept me thinking well after the audience filed out.
Oliver Driver’s direction leans heavily into the thriller aspect of the play, keeping characters concealed from us at key moments and letting the pace drag in exactly the right moments. The design does the same thing. John Verryt’s brilliant graffiti-saturated set hammers home the ugly impact of our generation; Thomas Press’s foreboding sound design amplifies the actors and their movements at occasional intervals; and Sean Lynch’s lighting amps up stylistically when the play asks it to and never looks back.
It’s a tremendous production by Silo, the third home-run of the year, and their bravest in at least a year. Belleville dares us to hate it, hate it characters, and then shoves our face up against the mirror, and tells us that we are these characters. Theatre doesn’t often do that, and when it does, it needs to be cherished.