SYDNEY INDEPENDENT THEATRE COMPANY’S ‘THE MERCY SEAT’

The play is set in New York on September 12th, 2001 – the day after the 9/11 attacks occurred. Playwright Neil Labute follows the story of a couple, struggling to come to terms with the disaster whilst also grappling with their own personal dilemmas. Questions of infidelity, commitment, gender roles and morals all come into play as Labute explores instinct in the wake of an opportunity, survival in the face of devastation.  Each of the characters has their own struggle but the burden they share is a particularly poignant one. They have a chance to erase everything and start over. Will they choose to abandon the responsibilities they had? Or will the randomness of survival, the guilt of the event, consume them – will morality kick in?
The writing is imbued with so many tensions of both a personal and political nature. Yet the complexity of the issues being dealt with weren’t always realised. It was an ambitious choice. Largely self-directed, perhaps a little more input from the collaborative directors listed in the program would have given this performance some more depth.
Although much of the plot is focused on the exploitation of tragedy for personal gain, the text is laced with so many layers of meaning that unfortunately seem to have been overlooked. Similarly, the characters were reduced to their most basic qualities and didn’t seem to change or develop as the play progressed.
Patrick Magee’s characterisation of Ben was, at times, immature – his breakdowns verged more on the side of neurotic than emotional, and what was intended to be a cowardly outbreak of indecision fell more in line with a childish tantrum. However it must be said that his characterisation was much stronger than Rebecca Martin’s portrayal of Abby, which was absolutely one-dimensional – the light and shade of the character was diminished to a bitter, power hungry woman.
The play does explore gender politics and does, to an extent, subvert traditional gender roles, however, this aspect of the text was over-emphasised and made for a real imbalance in the pair’s relationship. Martin’s overbearing and aggressive approach to her role alongside Magee’s weak whimpering was too much of a divide to convince me that these two would or could ever be a couple. Furthermore, this extreme polarization of characters made it difficult to sympathise with their situation. Instead, I found myself navigating through a discord of personalities. The tragedy of the circumstance and the struggle of the characters was thwarted by the characters themselves.
Although apologetic in the program, the minimal rehearsal time was an issue – not only for me but also for the actors. A lack of spatial awareness (made difficult due to an unfriendly set design) and a hesitance in a delivery every now and then threw off a few rhythms and interrupted the flow of the performance. Speaking of the set, no designer was credited in the program, but it seemed very messy and inconsiderate. A successful businesswoman’s apartment isn’t often adorned with worldly throws and oriental artwork. It resembled the flat of a bohemian uni student more so than a corporate New Yorker.
The pair were awkward together. There was zero chemistry. Yes, glimmers of good moments, I’m sure individually they have their strengths – but working together did neither of them any favours. It seemed more of a constant battle than a collaboration.

Labute’s writing is phenomenal; it is gripping and witty and utterly heart wrenching at times. But the personalities that Magee and Martin brought into the play were too overwhelming. It was difficult for me to invest in their stories when they were so locked into their idea of the characters. People aren’t always upset, or always on the offense, nor are they always submissive or cowardly. No one has one approach to every situation or one personality that defines them. It is the fluctuation between different emotions and states of being that makes us human and in the wake of disaster, every inch of our character is exposed –our response to the tragedy is only one aspect. Labute has encouraged the various character traits to surface, but unfortunately the pair were not able to negotiate the personalities.

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