Heart of gold

25 April 2019

Florence Bell falls in love with TANYA

I was ready for TANYA to be a love story. It really felt like it was going to go that way.

Tanya and Eugene fall in love at first sight

A satire on a love story, maybe. The moment Tanya and Eugene first see each other is accompanied by buckets of glitter being fanned over them. It’s a parody of that Hollywood moment. Locking eyes on each other across the room. That’s what this production does brilliantly again and again.

Tanya falls in love with Eugene at first sight. We’re not so sure about Eugene

We have to take what we see with a pinch of salt. Not because it’s not real – this isn’t some perspective-bending unreliable narrator faff that goes on for an hour too long starring a man with a moustache. Instead it’s regietheater van Hove-style, but on a student scale. And it works brilliantly.

Two actors fan golden confetti over Tanya and Eugene

This production borrows from euro-directors a lot. Tanya listens to a song that was in Anatomy of a Suicide. Like in van Hove’s Hedda, violence isn’t literal. Blood is poured over someone by another actor. Vast amounts of confetti that start off glamorous and end up disgusting are in Ostermeier’s Richard III.

Every year there are a couple of shows at NSDF that ‘borrow’ from professional productions. Sometimes it’s a little boring and frustrating. That’s not the case here. I’ve seen student productions that literally copied the original. Same set, same costume, etc. I’ve seen student productions that selectively borrowed from other productions. In TANYA, every decision fits the play beautifully. A few might be on the nose if you’ve seen the Barbican transfers they’re based on, but some work better than in the originals (arguably, in the world of regietheater and Ickean adaptations, there is no such thing as an ‘original’).

So. There’s a lot going on in TANYA. There’s oodles of haze, and there are some super rich, ex-boarding school kids. Wearing Urban Outfitters, probably. One of them is about to celebrate her 21st.

There are two sisters. One of them, Liv, has a long-term boyfriend (Lenny) and she’s not sure if she wants to marry him. She loves him and they have arguments sometimes. The other sister is Tanya, and characters in the play recognise that she’s a bit different from Liv, in a way that’s hard to put your finger on. She doesn’t mind being by herself. She responds to people a bit differently.

A group of people go on a night out

The genius of TANYA isn’t just in its euro-aesthetic. It satirises everything it takes on. Including that Simon Stone and co. vibe. Tanya is the sort of girl who would totally listen to ‘Venus in Furs’ when she was drunk. Because she’s that kind of artsy. But every decision the production makes is to establish the not-realness of the world. Until it’s suddenly too real.

A group of people dance but they’re all on their own

TANYA’s implicitly about gender. Eugene, long-term friend of Liv’s boyfriend, uses the same chat-up lines on both sisters. And they respond differently. And how they respond to a man chatting them up governs how they’ll be treated in this strange, glittery world/in our world. Tanya is a little more cautious, seems to care less about being liked by him (until she falls head over heels in love with him). Liv (and it’s difficult to write this without making it seem like Liv is a less interesting character, because she isn’t, and to say so is to fall into the same trap Eugene does) seems to be a bit more polite in that she cares about people liking her. I’ve butchered that, and not at all done justice to the play. But there you go.

Some of the most interesting discussions I’ve had at NSDF have been about TANYA. Some people loved it. Some people didn’t. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who found the characters’ wealth disingenuous, who struggled to connect with them because of the sickening amounts of money (and glitter, and cocaine). Maybe I’m far too ready to listen to foppish rich idiots. Maybe I should put my guard up a bit more. Maybe I should be more careful and aware about the culture I’m consuming.

Two people tease each other

I think the play is wonderfully satirical. It treads a fine line, always a real and painful drama and also a delicious morsel of something a bit more cogent. It doesn’t signpost itself as a comedy (or: it didn’t to my not very class-conscious politics). But it does make you laugh. At how stupid people are. At the funny things people do. Until suddenly those things aren’t funny anymore.

Two people have sex

TANYA toyed with me a lot. It draws you in and spits you out the other end, a bit battered and devastated. That’s what people like Eugene, people who inflict trauma do. We’ve all met someone like Eugene. I’m prepared to admit that I dated someone like Eugene, fully knowing who and what he was. There was a moment when I suddenly realised I wasn’t watching a love story. In the same moment, I also remember thinking: someone’s going to die at the end. This isn’t what I thought it was.

“You aren’t that experienced. You haven’t had sex in a while.”

This moment drew a gasp from the audience. It’s so rare to get audible reactions from audiences in end-on, sitting-in-the-dark plays that I sort of cherish them. The audience didn’t gasp because what Eugene said was a surprise (although it was unexpected – I thought he was a nice guy). Everyone gasped because what he was saying was so broadly offensive and rude. And so gendered.

The person who was going to die, I reasoned, was probably Tanya. And that’s not what happens. I suppose I thought it was Tanya because a) she’s the person who he treats horribly and b) women who get treated horribly in art usually end up dead.

But because TANYA is about gender, it’s also about trauma. And that’s one of the most genuine parts of it. That’s the point where I can’t agree with people who vehemently insist it is in its entirety a satire on the children of the mega-wealthy. I suppose it depends on what you find funny. But after Eugene’s pontification on the pain of Sylvia Plath (maybe that’s the point when I should have registered – this man’s a prick) the fact that Tanya becomes a poet at the end is ironic in a chilling way. There’s something going on here that’s about more than rich kids doing cocaine in their parents’ bathroom.

“Tanya. Your poems. I know they’re about me.”

Eugene is obviously a dick. But I don’t know if we can push him aside, refuse to listen to him. It’s an idea with deep cultural currency – what do we do with the people we disagree with? Who we don’t like? Who we think are horrible? It was a thrilling piece to watch after Chris Thorpe’s reminder in the first discussion that we should listen to the people we disagree with. There’s a danger that as soon as Eugene utters those horrid horrid words (“You aren’t that experienced”) we turn him off, tune him out, stop listening.

Lenny falls and hits his head on something porcelain, probably. He smashes his face in.

The play doesn’t let us stop listening. The trauma of what happens affects the dickwad as much as it affects the nice, decent person. As Tanya reminds us, “I’ve done this and I’ve done this five years ago.” She’s come to terms with what happened. Eugene hasn’t. He’s still a prick: “No one’s ever written good poetry about me.” But he’s right. We listen to him because he’s right, and even though we don’t agree with him, he’s the active force moving this scene on.

Lenny slips in the glitter and someone pours blood out of a plastic cup onto his face.

In an age where we are so inclined to shut down the bad men, listen to people, where we pour shame on people in heaps and heaps, treat it as flippantly as glitter, the last scene is so fascinating because dramaturgically it operates by powering itself off its politics. Eugene, the person who we really don’t want to listen to, who’s been a massive dick to Tanya, who we don’t want Tanya to have to stand and listen to, just talks and talks for ages. And we don’t want him to talk, but we want to listen, because he’s the person telling us this shit. Tanya’s a poet? And even if she denies it, she’s written poetry about him?

Tanya’s the person who we’ve seen been treated awfully by this man (the same is true for Lenny). We want to listen to her. But she leaves. She’s dealt with this. She pulls her sister up by the hand and they walk out. And Eugene is left, a heap on stage, clutching at glitter.

Lenny dies.

This scene incisively unfolds so many questions. Whose trauma should we listen to? Who should we feel sorry for? Are we looking at a good person and a bad person? What does obscene wealth to do a person?

Lenny exits.

TANYA made me really want to kiss someone. In an inexplicable way. It’s a satire/love story/tragedy. But above all, it feels very gentle and thoughtful. For a play in which an upper-class man turns round and tells a woman, in a polite but blunt way, that she’s a terrible fuck. For a play in which someone dies in a horrific way. For a play in which Eugene doesn’t even know his best friend’s dead, five years down the line. The storytelling is approached with such care; I trust it to take me places. That’s down to both the writing and those beautiful borrowings from the regie world. TANYA knows what it is. For anyone who acts with suspicion, who says: 'I don’t know if it knows how satirical it is. It was superficial. I didn’t like that the play ended with Eugene'.

Trust the play. Think about what you’re seeing. Don’t switch off.

@noffmag / [email protected]

Image credit: Beatrice Debney