When I saw that we would be revisiting scene four, otherwise known as the ‘epic scene that earns the interval’ – I felt a headache brewing. On its last run it was timed at 37 minutes and contents wise it’s not only a huge portion of the entire play but a significant event that really rocks the families’ core. This is the scene where the siblings are left to lay the table for the meal and Billy brings his new girlfriend Sylvia to meet his family. We had already loosely marked out everyone’s prop journeys concerning cutlery, wine, mustard pots, glasses, figs etc but time had passed and moves had been forgotten. Unfortunately timing, as it is throughout the whole play, is fundamental in creating the chaos of this family. This meant we had to literally drill the action, sometimes stopping to go over as little as five lines of dialogue at a time. This was really only half the battle as the dialogue that accompanies this action needs to be perfectly pitched with not a beat wasted. This is a household where wit and intellectual rapport have high currency and the family literally fight to be heard. Every effort is made to undermine others arguments and to be top comedian where appropriate.
Before Sylvia’s arrival in the scene I already feel that this family are incapable of greeting a newcomer into its midst’s. Ruth’s cutlery laying is humorously lethargic and Daniel has the dinner table literally decorated in his thesis. Their setting of the tone is perfect, as are the wave of arguments from the parents, both from over head and passing through the kitchen. Roger has really enhanced the ‘muffled shouting’ noted in Nina’s stage directions for the top of the scene and allowed the actors to elaborate on a previously improvised argument regarding Beth’s recent draft of her novel. The scene is set, and as a voyeur looking in at its potential for catastrophe I can’t wait for the next element to arrive, which is of course the nervous outsider, Sylvia.
A great deal of the tension both pre and post Sylvia arrival, lies in Christopher’s forthcoming prejudice against the deaf which he refers to as ‘the fucking Muslims of the handicapped world’. We also know that Daniel’s previous girlfriend who came for dinner had a difficult time and the ripples of that event are very much on the minds of all those concerned. There are several planting of potential bombs during the family’s dinner preparation that will inevitably go off but the nature of these explosions is not in any way predictable.
To make sure these arguments really land and don’t become completely inaudible or lost, Roger has been incredibly clear about where he wants interruptions of dialogue to occur, where the peaks of arguments should be and who triumphs over whom. He has shaped the family arguments with such precision that they are both incredibly fluid yet volatile. However once Sylvia arrives the atmosphere does calm slightly but never disappears entirely, Beth is monitoring her family’s behaviour and Christopher is working closer and closer towards opening a debate about deafness. Simultaneously the family revive old jokes and they exchange in venomous banter which is actually their expression of love.
A particular highlight of mine is the dumb show, which is less silent now and more cabaret. Sylvia is openly amused and seduced by it and the family direct specific moments for her benefit. It really is the family working together (excluding Billy) at their best. What’s not endearing about a family uniting in slow motion suicide? I don’t want to spoil it anymore but there is great experimentation from the actors with the actual specifics of who shoots who, who dies first and who will make the most noise and mess each time. Roger has given them full reign for this event and I enjoy watching them exercise it. We might arrive at a point where this is firmly set and consistent each time but for now it remains open.
The real dilemma of this gargantuan scene is the collective obligation that the family have to win the anti- sign debate that Christopher initiates because they haven’t learnt sign language as a family and actually they have kept Billy from making any connection or association with the deaf community and an acknowledgement of this may inspire some feeling of guilt on their part, which is just heartbreaking to watch.