Land Of The Dead / Helter Skelter
Bush Theatre Winter 2008
These two one-act plays by Neil LaBute share the observation that we tend to treat life-and-death matters too casually, just because they're too rarely really real to us.
In each, characters who have got along with, or even prided themselves on a degree of blasť sophistication are forced to treat reality with the respect it deserves.
Land of the Dead is a pair of alternating monologues by a man and woman who address the audience and don't really interact. As they take turns describing a particular morning, two surprises are sprung on us.
The first, which is telegraphed sufficiently in advance that I'm not giving anything away, is that the woman has scheduled an abortion for that morning. As they both deal with it matter-of-factly, only the occasional catch in her voice or the strained quality of his joking hint at deeper feelings they're working hard to deny.
The second surprise, which I found a bit too facile a way to bring in a sense of shock and horror the play hadn't really earned, does force a major re-evaluation for one of them, and the realisation that nothing involving life and death can be casual.
The play is barely twenty minutes long and, as I said, depends a little too much on an outside source for its emotional effect. But its point is a good one, and it is likely to linger and grow in your memory.
Helter Skelter is twice as long but ultimately less meaty and effective. A pregnant wife discovers that her husband has been having an affair and refuses all 'normal' ways of reacting to it, insisting that such life-shaking revelations require larger-than-life responses.
Her choice is indeed shocking and may even surprise you, but the play never really rises above its banal plot premise.
In each of the plays it is the woman who carries most of the emotional burden, and Ruth Gemmel's two very different characterisations are both very strong. The two male characters are given somewhat less to do, and John Kirk and Patrick Driver must be satisfied with giving solid support.
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Land Of The Dead/Helter Skelter - Bush Theatre 2008