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‘You’ll be eager to find out what happens next’: Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels – Finborough Theatre (Online review)

The development of our hybrid theatre model continues apace, but this third lockdown has produced a particular period of acceleration as the transfer from stage to screen becomes even more innovative, daring and sophisticated. This week Nick Evans premieres his CGI version of Romeo and Juliet that dispenses with the Zoom boxes to place actors in a virtual world. It makes for a strange viewing experience but it demonstrates the leaps and bounds of technological possibility in the last 11 months. Athena Stevens takes an entirely different but equally fascinating approach to her new play serialised in 28 parts for the Finborough Theatre, half of which are now available for free on their YouTube channel.

Stevens’ story is an exploration of toxic masculinity and the complex and contradictory responses of two women connected to the unseen male character. But this is not about a large scale abuse of power but the smaller, casual and everyday experiences of coercion and control that affect the unnamed man’s girlfriend and best female friend whose perspectives are dramatised. What was intended to be a two-hander in which the protagonists narrate the unfolding story, painting a picture of their friend in common, comes alive on screen in an addictive 6-7 minute format.

By definition, theatre is a difficult thing to reformat; the process and cost of asking an audience to potentially return night after night to see a longer story often isn’t practical and while there are notable examples of plays that exist over multiple parts – the Henriad Trilogy and Angels in America (recently added to the National Theatre at Home streaming service), being the most obvious – what Stevens in looking to do with Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels just isn’t possible on stage, and this play will certainly take on a different resonance when the Finborough space reopens. So, the current lockdown gives Stevens the opportunity to serialise her work as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle once did in periodicals, while at the same time using the technical possibilities of digital theatre to create a particular visual style and tone that brilliantly enhances the depth of this material.

With 14 of the 28 episodes so far aired and new editions premiering daily at 6pm, Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels has already become a gripping anatomy of relationships and the attempts to manipulate two quite different women. Stevens plays “A”, the man’s confidant and world-wise best friend who, while well-aware of his approach to dating and occasionally inappropriate behaviours, remains weirdly drawn to him almost in spite of herself. This smart, glamorous and self-assured woman feels only sympathy for his forlorn girlfriend, known only as “1”, but in trying to offer support, her conflicted loyalties become entangled in awkward exchanges and territorial divides that build a wall between the two women.

Structurally, Stevens employs a she said/she said format, giving each woman the space to talk in half the episodes. Usually 1 is first and A second, with only two of the 6-minute sessions involving a conversation between them on the phone – the only piece of direct dialogue in this first part of the series. Each monologue advances the overall story, outlining particular incidences, activities and plot developments that progress the narrative while complementing one another. In doing so, the viewer is able to see two versions of the same story with an insight into how events are intended and then received.

1 agonises over a racy picture to her boyfriend, posing for and trying to perfect it, yet we learn from A that the boyfriend received it during Sunday lunch with his family and showed it quite thoughtlessly. Later in Episode 8, the women reflect on their own conversation with one another; A reiterates her feelings of sympathy and concern for 1 as a result of the man’s bad behaviour while these overtures are less well received by 1 who, afraid that her boyfriend will find out, is unconvinced by A’s protective approach. The shifting perspective here is one of the most intriguing aspects of the play, considering how the same events can be perceived or be relayed completely differently.

Steven’s writing captures those unspoken nuances between two people and the messages conveyed without any words being spoken. D.H. Lawrence elucidates this so well in Sons and Lovers where he explores an unspoken tension between the central couple resulting from changes of mood and the process of two souls struggling for and against one another that undercuts the success of their meeting. Stevens draws out precisely that experience here, where communication becomes stilted even uncomfortable despite A and 1 both saying the right things. This recognition that voice and chemistry can simultaneously be at odds adds layers to the story that keeps the audience coming back for each installment.

Its cinematic style is another, and director Lily McLeish along with Designer Anna Reid have created one of the most visually arresting hybrid productions of recent months, using colour, tonal variation and pattern to give variance to each sequence while saying so much about the personality and emotional state of the characters. The back and forth structure is energised by locating each scene in a different part of A and 1’s homes while unusual shots and perspectives add a beauty and meaning to the unfolding story. It is incredibly stylish, even chic, and McLeish uses the spaces so carefully to immerse the viewer in these separate lifestyles while pushing the boundaries of technique to visually hold our attention – an approach that works whether you watch this piecemeal or in binge sittings.

For 1, softer shades and patterns are a feature, using accents in frosty blue and soft pink. Even when 1 is wearing a stronger hue in Episodes 10, 11 and 13, the framing of these scenes still accords with her surroundings, like a high-end magazine photograph creating rich but slightly flattened tones. To enhance this effect, McLeish shoots 1 from strange and unexpected places or angles, framing her against the black, grey and white patterned floor in the bathroom while capturing her face from above or from the side. In Episode 11 the same patterned flooring becomes a foreground, no longer dominating the screen but drawing the eye towards 1 squeezed into the corner by the toilet where a partially open door offers a light and shade effect that feels quite painterly. With other locations including her bed, sofa, hallway and living room, these combinations of colour choices, shot selection and performance create mutually beneficial harmonies with the monologue content.

By contrast, A’s set design is bolder and cleaner, preferring stark jewel colours and modern minimalist design using bright accents to underscore the notion of A as a women to be feared and admired. Costume too is an important element of self-expression for A, wearing fitted office dresses in bold shades that reinforce a level of independence, taste and even financial security including a royal blue dress against the white and red kitchen or a yellow loose gown in her Episode 5 bedroom, while her home is decorated with contemporary art and chic appliances in shades deliberately designed to pop. The effect, conversely, is to draw attention to some of those unspoken contrasts with A’s outward appearance and, certainly at this stage of the story, these suggest an unresolved emotional undercurrent – in such a stylish setting, why does she live only with an occasionally visible cat, never mentions her own love life and talks only of this quite imperfect and unavailable man? McLeish films A in the reflection of her own window, leaning against the sofa or in her kitchen; so far always upright, often outraged but always in control – at least she thinks she is.

In a story of this kind, it is the absent characters that must feel as vivid and credible as those we see in order to make sense of the obsession with them. The man here is still a little blurred by Episode 14, but Stevens has given the viewer just enough to recognise his behavioural traits and mode of operation that makes his effect on 1 and A believable. His casual treatment of 1 seems callous, even cruel especially when A adds her interpretation of his words and actions, helping the view to build a picture of a man who refuses to commit fully, runs a mile when his girlfriend says she loves him (Episode 10) and never sustains a relationship beyond 18-months. This is someone who likes to feel powerful and to have others envy him hence his insistence on how 1 should look and the bragging way in which he shows her off to A. He is, we note, indiscreet about their private relationship, talking openly about their sex life and 1’s personality flaws which he uses as a means to control both women, making 1 think she has everything to lose while dangling the possibility of his dissatisfaction in front of A, flirtily indicating she is the perfect women instead. While half way though this series we don’t know so much as his name, what he looks like or any material detail of his life, we know he is a toxic presence and one that makes us fear for both 1 and A in the remaining editions.

Both actors are providing immersive, gripping performances. You wonder, perhaps, if these characters are on opposite trajectories because there is something unresolved in A’s attitude to this man that goes beyond a simple friendship. Stevens is navigating this possibility really well, suggesting A is almost a stranger to herself, that her natural impulse to be kind to 1, knowing the man as she does and her to-camera outrage at his actions suggests a deeper hope than she may yet realise. Stevens gives A confidence, surety and balance, hinting that she would never let anyone treat her so badly yet leaves so many questions unanswered especially on why she has never challenged his behaviour directly. Where the rest of the series will take this character remains to be seen, but her (so far) stifled interior life has far more invested in this man then she knows or is prepared to admit.

Evelyn Lockley by contrast shows a trepidatious young woman slowly eroded by the man she cares for, absorbing any criticism and picking-over every conversation as evidence that she is not good enough. 1 is quite delicate and despite a relationship nearing 18-months, she is like a crushed flower, timid and uncertain, pouring over his every word and action while nervous, possibly even suspicious though not necessarily jealous, of A’s proximity to him and complete contrast with herself. 1 is worn down by the man’s critiques of her personality and needs, making her passivity hard to watch but Lockley balances a wounded emotional despair with a determination for self-improvement, hinting at a stronger strain of resolution that may be significant as the story plays out. 1’s fragility is tempered even early on by a recognition of her own beauty (Episode 2) and while her desire to please and be acceptable to him has dominated the story so far giving Lockley the chance to explore the impacts of coercive control, there are suggestions that 1 knows something of her value and that the second half of this story may offer her a chance for decisive action.

The first 14 episodes of Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels utilises its digital format to enhance the themes and tone of the play while opening several possible directions this might take. This combination of Stevens’s text and characterisation, McLeish’s smart direction and Reid’s delicious visual design have created an atmosphere of intrigue, leaving the audience to muse over the potentially sinister tone, the silently complicated relationship between these two women, how long they will remain in the thrall of this undeserving man and the meaning of the title. With nearly 90-minutes of content already available and just as much to come, whether you tune in every day or consume this in one sitting, you’ll be eager to find out what happens next.

Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels is streamed for free on the Finborough Theatre YouTube channel with new episodes added at 6pm every day until 28 February. The full play will then be available from 1-30 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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