In the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the plight of the homeless and the displaced has been firmly in the news. As tragic as this is, there have been other ‘less ‘newsworthy’ incidents in recent years regarding building fires and people falling through the cracks of society. One only has to recall in recent years the spikes placed outside buildings in the Borough of Westminster. The message: homeless people aren’t welcome in Britain. Of course the UK doesn’t have a monopoly on shameful practices in relation to classes and economic groups. Chile under Colonel Pinochet’s administration was unquestionably a dictatorship and many groups fell foul of his policies. Under this reigime, Juan Radrigán existed. While not able to comment on Pinochet’s actions directly, he spent a lifetime writing about the dispossessed and those on fringes of society. In a timely move, Catherine Boyle has translated Radrigán’s Mad Man Sad Woman for the British stage, with Sue Dunderdale directing.
Starring Sadie Shimmin and Bil Stuart, they play two homeless strangers who happen to be sharing a sleeping space within a condemned building. No reference is made to the city they’re in, thus lending the play a universal relevance. Their respective names are mentioned eventually, but that in itself is part of the story. Thinking that ‘he’ is like the other people who ‘rough-handled’ her the previous night, she doesn’t want to tell him anything personal about herself. As she won’t tell him her name, he calls her something she detests: a slang term that singles out her ‘mishapen’ leg – ‘gammy’.
Sitting among the detritus, the characters initially have superficial similarities to Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, what with talk of swollen feet and being beaten the night before. However, Mad Mad Sad Woman isn’t an abstract treatise on existentialism. Cut off from family, friends and all the reminders of their old life, every day is an uphill struggle for them to hold on to one’s health, one’s self respect, to muster the will to keep going… Life on the streets is cheap and ‘he’ suspects that at the ‘grand old age of 30’ that his time is nearly up. ‘She’ is better off healthwise, partly because she doesn’t drinks as much alcohol as he does, and even drinks tea some of the time. As an ‘older’ sex worker, if she really looked the worse for wear, she would have no business whatsover.
As the building erodes around them, so do their respective misgivings with each other …as well as the audience’s first impressions. With the discovery of each other’s names, ‘layers’ are shed, revealing their true, unguarded selves – daring to admit the things they truly want out of life, which even the brutality of life hasn’t crushed. Yet even in this moment of finding and reconcilation, their ‘happiness’ is short-lived, as men approach nearby…
A play like this succeeds or fails on the rapport of the core performances – chemistry that Shimmin and Stuart have with abundance. Under Dunderdale’s deft direction, the grit of reality is tempered by the compassion and genuine feeling of these ‘strangers’ without falling into mawkishness – much like John Steinbeck had for the ‘derelicts’ in his novel Cannery Row. Kudos to both actors for their grounded, but heartfelt performances, letting the humanity of their charactets shine through and making us wish that there is a “house on the other side” for them too. Kudos also to Amerlia Jane Hankin for the straightforward, but effective set design, and Boyle’s translation which is paradoxically nuanced and universally-relatable.
Anybody with an ounce of empathy for the less fortunate will want to see this play.
© Michael Davis
Mad Man Sad Woman runs at Space Arts Centre 8th July 2017.