Saturday, 11th November 2017 at Finborough Theatre, London.
Keith Bunin’s The Busy World is Hushed is a fresh and surprising take on the combination of religion, tragedy and sexuality. It’s a three hander which sees a wayward son tormenting his mother with his frequent tendency to abscond, a mother who studies scripture and the young man she hires to help her to write a ground-breaking book. There’s a challenging complexity to this piece which forces you to really engage with the subject matter and to evaluate your responses to the actions of each character. Each evolves significantly, giving the play depth and a shifting vantage point of the relationships being played out. The interplay between life within religion and life outside of it is fascinating and explores just how much we are entitled to ask of one another. When those on the outside seek to undermine or reject the religion of another, it makes for very interesting exchanges, especially when religion generally touts unity as its founding glory as opposed to insurmountable divisions.
If you hear tell of a new pay about relationships and religion which features gay characters, you’re likely to expect that tired, predictable trope of religion V sexuality. I love that The Busy World is Hushed paints an entirely different picture, portraying familial conflict without the perception that sexuality promises friction and I love it even more for depicting a loving gay relationship with credibility and sensitivity; a relationship featured for the benefit of character development and plot rather than an equal opportunity tick or the all too prominent exploitation of same sex relationships to depict little more than comic characters or sexualised cut outs rather than valuing the gentle humanity of any relationship.
Director Paul Higgins creates a tone at once desperate, hopeless and gentle and allows each character to softly spin between the three, colliding with one another to illuminate or cloud their own experiences. Each character has personal pains, each is in search of something and each is facing great uncertainty – the fact that every character has this complexity means that the scenes between them always uncovers something interesting for contemplation. The chemistry between Michael James, playing Thomas, and Mateo Oxley, playing Brandt is great and as the fleeting relationship wades through calm and choppy waters, it’s easy to feel attached to them and their story. Oxley delivers the most emotional of the performances and presents Brandt’s pains and moments of contentment with emotive sensitivity. James presents the complexities of Thomas with skill to encourage a range of reactions, never quite settling on one reading of the lost young man.
The relationship between Thomas and Hannah, his mother, played by Kazia Pelka, is far more removed and difficult to judge until the second act which brings about the greatest dramatic moments and raises resounding questions to solidify this play’s position as an intelligent, perplexing piece of modern writing. James and Pelka work well together and allow the fragile relationship between their characters to be the backdrop to far more obscure and challenging ideas around the role of religion, belief and identity – shared tragedy which remains unspoken is a powerful element to this piece. Pelka’s unreliable American accent is unfortunate as it is an anomaly when flanked by the strong accents of Oxley and James, but her performance as a mother torn between her own comfort and the need to keep her son safe is played feelingly. The play makes relationships the cornerstone around which all the rest is built and that structure works well to invite engagement and investment.
While there are many strengths in this production, there are some niggling flaws too – set designer Marco Turcich creates an environment of discord through a messy office space littered with boxes and piles of religious texts – the room is dominated by a stained glass window arrangement which serves to highlight the way in which religion dominates the lives of the characters in one way of another. But the seemingly aimless movement of books and set is too frequent – while shuffling books and shifting a desk repeatedly may hold some significance, it also holds distraction – I think the piece would have benefitted from more purposeful blocking at times. There’s also an unfortunate flaw of imbalance which I’ve found in quite a few performances recently; the dramatic intensity and overall quality of the second act significantly outshines everything in the first and I can’t help thinking that a better balance would elevate this to new heights. There’s plenty to interest in Act I and the performances are good but aside from the first glimpse of romance and a token show of tension between mother and son, the first act simply tootles along pleasantly enough. In contrast, Act II is full of engaging moments and high impact scenes which aim a sling shot at the rib cage…
The Busy World is Hushed is a drama which probes our understanding of the lives of others and raises questions about our reliance on others for happiness, our dependence on others to serve our interests and our need to understand ourselves in isolation before understanding our roles within relationships. Religion provides a backdrop for engaging existential questions, making this piece an engaging and challenging piece of modern theatre.
The Bust World Is Hushed is an Arsalan Sattari production in association with Neil McPherson for Finborough Theatre, it plays at Finborough Theatre until November 25th and you can get your tickets here.