A young woman. Her father. A cup of tea. They occupy the first 45 minutes or so of Edward Bond’s play, a lengthy monologue delivered by Mike (Manuel Cauchi), in part to his obstinately silent daughter Sheila (Simone Spiteri), in part to his own disconcerted self. Words gush out of his mouth, filling the theatre with bitter, jittery frustration. He inundates Sheila with arguments, disputes, confrontations, orders, prayers, pleas, guilt, provocations; but she is a formidable opponent whose defence is unyielding and uncompromising. Mike drives himself in a corner and kills her but she never drinks her tea.
Mike talks a lot but when he is imprisoned for murder, he toys with silence; botches his attempt at a pseudo-redemption and returns home none the wiser. Vera (Pia Żammit) provides him with the solution: a conjugal proposition pitched on a diligently scrubbed silver plate. She knows it all, she always did, she knows best. But Mike needs the right questions and not the right answers. He conceded to the latter in his daughter’s presence and he ended up with filicide and a cold, untouched cup of tea. Ellen (Jo Fuller) is the one with the questions but ultimately there is no way out of Olly’s prison: the system governing Mike’s incarceration is a retch stifling a sob.
Who’s Olly? Where is this prison?
Olly (Steve Hili) is the ubiquitous soul of the play. He is the whistleblowing entertainer, giggling in the face of tragedy exposed as farce, laughing laughing and laughing until the joke turns on him and morphs him into a hushed, maimed effigy imprisoned inside a bandaged body. A blind jester strapped to a chair. He is the prison, surrounded and engulfed by other prisons, a mad Matryoshka of barred cells and shackled selves, as tangible as the jail in which Mike is sent to, as volatile as Smiler’s (Dave Persiva) faith in a promising future.
Olly’s prison is also the theatre-in-the-round at St James Cavalier. Director Chris Cooper was bold enough to block scenes with actors giving their backs to a part of the audience for a very long time. I never saw Sheila’s face, nothing but the excruciatingly slow movements of her head as she withstood her father’s onslaught. I wanted to see more of her, that is why I went to the theatre, to see, but I was trapped in my seat. Contrasting with this stillness was the stifled movement of the actors, cornered in a panorama surrounded by invisible walls: Mike’s nervous pacing to and fro, Barry’s (Victor Debono) distraught squeals and Olly’s pathetic round and round the room, injured and blinded by Frank’s (Joseph Żammit) violent eruptions.
It is a cruel play where everybody grapples with their own set of iron bars. Bleak but very, very good.