Image Courtesy of Traverse Theatre
Grain in the Blood
Until 12th November
“We are all animals.” What a retired veterinarian first says in jest proves to be the moral dilemma embedded within the play, as the audience is forced to ask the question: what makes man good? In the space of 85 minutes, Grain in the Blood presents its spectators with a simple yet shocking study of the human condition, and how far some individuals will go to help someone in need.
Grain in the Blood is certainly a play close to the Traverse Theatre’s heart, with its conception, production and direction all carried out by affiliates of the theatre: including director, Orla O’Loughin. The close link to the theatre surely influenced the writing of the play, as the set-up of Traverse 1 offers the audience a unique perspective of the action. As spectators stoop over the stage, filling an incredibly steep row of seats, they mirror a jury stand, casting judgment on the guilty below.
The difficult and depressing subject matter – a young girl dying who can only be “saved” by her convict father – is wonderfully balanced with blunt humour. Blasphemy is rampant in young Autumn, and while her swearing is amusingly outrageous, it also provides welcome relief from the unrelenting tension within this isolated environment. As Autumn admits, and we can agree, it really does make us feel better.
And yet, all of Autumn’s swearing and brutally hilarious interactions only briefly eclipse the darker elements present. In line with the rural setting, Grain in the Blood is heavy in its discussion of folklore and superstition, also casting a glimpse towards the dangers that can arise when fiction becomes fact for young, impressionable individuals. Nothing is ever as clear-cut as it may first appear, and moments of normalcy are eerily undermined by talk of verses, sacrifices and the blood craved by the Grain Mother.
Unfortunately, Blythe Duff’s portrayal of Sophia is difficult to process: there is something off about Isaac’s mother and Autumn’s grandmother. Her accentuations of people’s names, her mannerisms, even her reactions to violence, are never fully embodied by Duff. Her docile nature towards Autumn and her estranged son is almost condescending. This could be intentional, of course, given the play’s shocking climax. And yet, for it to take 75 minutes for us to realise something is not right with Sophia makes it hard to see this portrayal as successful. However, to say that these slight imperfections mar the play would be an injustice to the astounding Sarah Miele as Autumn. Charismatic and upfront, Autumn never allows her frailty to overcome her. She is convincing from start to finish, and shines in every scene.
Whether Isaac will save his daughter is a simple question, but we are painstakingly drip-fed the answer. The morality here is hard to swallow, questioning the extent of human kindness. Each character has their own guilt, anger and sadness: the problem is, we only catch glimpses of them. Only during the horrifying yet foreseen climax is the emphatic tension effectively sustained.
Grain in the Blood is a formidable and unsettling slow-burner that explores the moral grey areas of humanity: one that suddenly bursts at the seams, ensuing chaos.