Heavy and oddly light

18 April 2019

Grace Patrick is puzzled by the contradictions in Rotterdam

While I was watching Rotterdam, I became aware of a growing sense that this isn’t fair. It’s not fair that people have to struggle with their identity in any way and that it frequently brings moments of pain, but more than that it’s not fair to frame these struggles as a soap opera hypothetical in which they’re relegated to little more than a plot device.

There were quite a few things that I struggled with regarding the tone taken by the play, which often seems to skip unpredictably between the solemn and the oddly light, before jumping back again. I absolutely believe that serious stories can be told without getting stuck in a verbal pit of despair, but the atmospheric shifts often felt unjustified. It’s generally going for naturalism, and jumps like that just don’t happen in real life because people tend to take the life changing experiences of their loved ones seriously.

This problem existed in the opposite direction as well, with conversations descending into screaming arguments uncomfortably swiftly. In part, I think this issue stemmed from the fact that the play takes place over the course of several months, but the passage of time wasn’t at all easy to keep up with. The (excessively) drawn out scene changes gave it an episodic feeling, but there were few clues as to how and when significant periods of time were passing. Because of that, the evolution of Adrian and Alice’s relationship felt unnaturally quick, and therefore the moments of strong emotion felt unearned. The actors were working hard and going well with what they had, but they often seemed as if they were fighting against the script. On top of that, the clash between the partially realistic and partially representative set rendered the concept tricky to follow.

One line of conversation that I found interesting in this play was about agency in relation to self-identity. A theme appears to be people threatening the right of others to determine how they identify and who they tell, and how an individual can uphold their own identity while respecting other people at the same time.  The strongest scene in the piece was a moment of proper conversation between the two brothers. It felt to me like this was where the play got closest to really digging into its subject matter without getting lost in conflict. Equally, some of the exploration of the generational differences in attitudes to coming out was interesting and in places pertinent, but often felt brushed over in favour of focusing on the dramatics that it was made to lead to.

Really, Rotterdam seemed to me like a clunky and heavy exploration of some nuanced and delicate subjects. It didn’t do them justice and it didn’t communicate the many layers of complications sufficiently, and this absence left the play feeling hollow and inconclusive. Perhaps this is because there are no immediate answers, but surely it would be better to acknowledge this ambiguity than to attempt to shoehorn a happy ending.

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Photo credit: Beatrice Debney