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‘A significant achievement of this third lockdown’: Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels – Finborough Theatre (Online review)

When we left 1 and A in Episode 14 of Athena StevensLate Night Staring at High Res Pixels they were both in some kind of moral and emotional jeopardy, and it seemed appropriate on International Women’s Day to return to this nuanced and considered exploration of female agency, solidarity and behaviour.

Created by a predominantly female team, including Stevens as writer and star, Evelyn Lockley as 1, director Lily McLeish and designer Anna Reid, serialised in 6-7 minute episodes in February and now available to view in its entirety, the second half of this story is unafraid to confront the confusion of relationships, our behavioural failures as women and the complex layers of perspective through which we view out friends and loved ones.

Episodes 15-28 are focused on self-reflection as the consequences of the first half play out against the carefully cultivated atmosphere of male toxicity and a groundless female competitiveness that affects the central characters in quite different ways. As suspected, A and 1 take opposite trajectories in the this section of Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels, although their paths to enlightenment are not straightforward. That both emerge with a new found recognition of their own power and independence by no means overshadows what becomes a sometimes torturous process for them both in different ways as whole chunks of their behaviour and attitudes are stringently re-examined. This brings not only empowerment and resilience but, for A especially, confusion, shame and even disbelief as her logical mind and instincts fight against the dawning realisation that this man is not what she supposed.

Part 2 is an especially honest excavation of our in-built assumptions about the people we trust and how difficult it can be to see them from an alternative and unfavourable perspective. Stevens digs deep by letting A come slowly to the realisation that not only has her friend mistreated and manipulated her by creating competition with another woman in order to bolster his own ego, but, by reconsidering a key event from Episode 2 which overshadows and drives the subsequent narrative, it becomes possible to quite specifically label this man’s actions.

Across a couple episodes in the final portion of the story, A truly and uncomfortably wrestles with the black and white starkness of the term and how its much wider societal implication seems hardly to apply to a man she knows and cares for. How Stevens weighs-up his traits both in writing and performance are fascinating – gruellingly so for A who struggles to reconcile the application of this incendiary word with the man she laughs with, shares confidences and even finds herself momentarily attracted to. That Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels becomes more than a message of solidarity makes this concluding segment so interesting while engaging critically with what it means to see an abstract term in a real situation, setting in motion the consequences of that realignment in her thinking.

Though perhaps coincidental, the chosen character names of 1 and A seem increasingly significant in Part 2, with both anonymising symbols notifying equivalent importance and seniority as well as universality, as though Stevens is subtly reinforcing the idea that whatever external or patriarchal layers are imposed on and shape our perspective of these women, they and their experiences in this story are of equal importance – reflected in the evenhanded she said / she said structure. This plays out nicely in the narrative of 1 who we were encouraged to see in Part 1 as something of a victim, a timid even weak personality whose self-worth and daily purpose is derived from her boyfriend.

While the viewer had already begun to question his value in her life by Episode 14, in Part 2 something very different emerges for 1 who comes to recognise her own needs and how to reach for them. There are wobbles as she reunites with this terrible man ever-believing that she can change him, but so involved has the viewer become in her experience and so invested in a positive outcome for her, that you may punch the air as 1 steps easily into a position of control in the relationship and its destiny. This strength was always there, only muted and as 1 grapples with a lingering interaction with A, her balance and clear-headedness prove a useful point of character development and contrast so pointedly with the messier emotional entanglement of A – a rare example in theatre and film where a romantic relationship ends with a cleaner break than a friendship.

And then there is him; how much more we learn about this unnamed middle-aged man toying with the honest connection two women offer him in the remaining 14 episodes. At 45, he reveals not only a disregard or lack of thought about other people’s feelings but an underlying deliberate cruelty and anger when the tables are turned on him. The way Stevens writes the absent presence of this crucial character is a little ambiguous, sometimes presenting him as coercively and deeply manipulative, using 1 and A to make the other jealous and to enhance his own feelings of control, but occasionally, there is a suggestion that this man may be blithely unaware of the impact he has or the ingrained toxicity that shapes his behaviour.

When challenged late in the series, he reacts with furious anger and a knowing defensiveness, severing a friendship and hitting-out with accusations of his own that refuse to address A’s questions, legitimising his own actions by actively belittling her concerns. The point, as Stevens final monologue goes on to elucidate, is to explore the many shades of character in which we can be different things to different people, where the context in which we interact can readily conceal another’s internalised prejudices. These wider realisations when they come for the man and his best friend A are hard to reconcile and process, and Stevens engages intellectually with externally reported instances of toxic behaviour framed by celebrity downfalls and criminal charges and the personal, everyday and accepted experiences of many women, a boundary that is valuably shown to be quite blurred. Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels demonstrates when and how lines are crossed. These are meaty and complex debates that Stevens tackles head-on, leaving her audience as much as her characters examining their own conduct.

Throughout this second tranche, the visual style of these monologues in colour, filming style and technique increasingly reflect the overspilling emotional experience of the characters whose fluctuating journeys are captured so beautifully. Episode 16 is a particular joy as the distraught A, having received an especially loaded birthday gift from her male friend, is thrown into tumult by its meaning and implications. Laying – for the first time – prostrate on her bed, the room designed by Reid is a maelstrom of vivid colour as the electric royal blue / purple walls and bedspread saturate the screen while A is picked out in her stark red dress, inconsolably confiding her confusion.

At other times, McLeish forms deliberate barriers by filming through objects that suggest the women are hiding from their true feelings or perhaps just concealing them from the unforgiving gaze of the intrusive camera. Notably, a wire wastepaper basket sits between us and 1 in Episode 15 as she reveals her own reaction to the birthday dinner; later A peeks through the slatted banister of her staircase in Episode 26 while angrily denouncing an aggressive phone call from Him. It’s clear also in this second half of the story that a darker mood begins to consume one of the characters as deepening shade and perspective are used within the visual design to a noticeably sinister effect – the very absence of Reid’s striking colours as significant as the tonal variations used to demarcate the lifestyles of 1 and A in the early episodes. 1 now embraces a vertical posture and the light as A is consumed by shadow in several segments including Episodes 20 and 27.

Both Lockley and Stevens deepen their engrossing performances from the earlier episodes, picking-up on some of the hints they gave about their character’s future while reinforcing the underlying confusion their quite different relationship with the man between them creates. But there is far more light and shade in the second set of performances, as moral ambiguities take precedence. 1 and A wrestle with the outcome of Part 1, with Stevens in particular having to chart a steep and rapid decline in her character’s emotional stability that turns her inside out. However, this never detracts from or lessens the expansion of Lockley’s character whose growing resilience is developed with equal care.

It is no exaggeration to say that this has been a tremendous piece of work – visually, tonally and in the openness with which it confronts larger issues around male and, crucially, female behaviours where women have (albeit unthinkingly in this case) created a culture of repression, judgement and exploitation of others. Stevens work considers the fuzzy limits between the personal and the political, as well as the ownership of female bodies, privacy and the consequences of not speaking out. To have used this short, episodic format to do that has been a revelation and a significant achievement of this third lockdown. Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels became an anticipatory event waiting for the next daily installment to appear at 6pm, and, if you can refrain from consuming all 28 episodes in one sitting, there is considerable value in experiencing these as Stevens and McLeish intended, as a slow-burn pause for thought that will consume more than their allotted 6-7 minutes as you muse on these character confessionals and their cumulative meaning.

While another prolonged period of lockdown has necessitated the online reorientation of Stevens’s play, the opportunity to reimagine it in this serialised format has been a huge success. As we approach the anniversary of theatre closures, McLeish and Reid in particular have notably demonstrated how sophisticated digital theatre has become in that year. February was all the brighter for a daily dose of Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels, a story that unfolds over many months, so with every episode now available, let them consume your March evenings as well.

Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels Episodes 1-28 are now available for free on the Finborough YouTube channel. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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