A woman wearing a respirator and a man in a fencing mask are waiting on the stage. The man, retreating behind a shower curtain, begins to play a piano; the woman reappears in a wedding veil. Yes, dear reader, papercut– is that kind of show. Over the course of an hour and a quarter, the same two actors perform a series of unrelated dialogues and tableaux – intended, so the programme tells us, to capture what it might feel like to be present at the end of the world.
Not that the scenes are apocalyptic – far from it. Some of them are pithily domestic, including the coldly lit opening dialogue – which at first resembles a marital argument, then brilliantly transforms our understanding of the scenario to reveal the reason why the two people are talking but not communicating. Some of the vignettes are humorous, while others are entirely visual. In one of them, the man and woman simply dance.
Everything is beautifully presented. An astonishing amount of attention has been lavished on the detail, from the costumes to the utilitarian set; the lighting is creative and sharp, both setting an eerily clinical mood and helping to delineate the scenes. At the centre of it all, actors Harriet Wakefield and Henry Martin turn in bravura performances, convincingly evoking a vast range of characters and displaying total mastery of a wordy and complex script.
But there are two big problems. The first, and the greater one, is that each individual scene continues far beyond the moment when it’s made its point and should graciously leave the stage. A darkly witty take on speed-dating, for example, loses its impact by being over-extended, burying its touching message amidst an excess of repetitive humour. This scene could be cut by half, and some others could be trimmed by even more than that.
The second problem is that the sequence of vignettes doesn’t really lead anywhere. There’s a general theme of decay and breakdown – towards the end, the characters have removed most of their clothes and are communicating using grunts – and perhaps there’s an echo of the likes of Ionesco, who explored what we’re left with when language itself fails. But papercut– lacks the coherence necessary to make any particular point, and the final scene, involving a dead body and actors dressed as though preparing to remove asbestos, left me more bemused than enlightened.
Overall, papercut– reminded me of a rambling conversation with a long-winded friend – where indulgent pleasure is gradually replaced by creeping irritation, and a fervent wish that they’d get to the point. But this is experimental theatre, and the nature of experiments is that their results are unpredictable. So you might find that you connect with it in a way that I didn’t; and in any event, the performances and visual style surely deserve those three stars.