Review by Sam Waite
Our families and our faiths are two central elements of our lives and personalities – both who we are and how we choose to present ourselves are heavily shaped by their impacts. Akedah, now playing Downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre, explores, among other difficult subjects, what happens when these two elements of our lives clash too harshly to reconcile their influences.
Titled after a Hebrew word for “binding”, Akedah centres on two sisters whose lives have become re-entangled when Gill, the eldest, turned up at the beachside compound where Kelly now lives. As well as the debate over whether Kelly’s new chosen family is a cult or a calling, the pair each believe the other’s version of their life is revisionist – while Gill insists their mother was “dirty” and derides her sex work and abandonment, Kelly remembers an abusive father who drove his wife to drastic action.
More pressing is their interpretation of what happened moments before the play began – Gill remembers running into the ocean to keep Kelly from danger and accidentally grazing an older woman who surprised her with her keys, but her sister insists she charged screaming at the woman she was baptising and promptly stabbed her. Ruby Campbell and Amy Molloy are so convincing, so assured in their performances, that for much of the play we can’t be sure who, if anyone, is correct.
Molloy is the more immediate standout as 30-something Gill, openly distraught from the first moment we see her and at points visibly shaking with anger or sorrow. She carries much of the emotional weight of the first half on her shoulders, while also finding moments of sardonic humour in Gill’s bantering disbelief at her sister’s life. Campbell’s work as newly-18-year-old Kelly is the more slowly drawn, revelatory performance, a carefully constructed air of serenity disguising her true feelings until later events bring them to the forefront. The chemistry between the two women is palpable, each of their line deliveries relying on the reaction of the other to embody a frayed but not quite broken connection.
Mairead McKinley makes excellent use of her limited time on stage, appearing in the story’s final third as the woman who Gill assaulted upon her arrival. Saying too much about Sarah, 50-something, and a new convert, would ruin some of the more emotional moments leading to the finale, but her quiet, understated performance beautifully compliments her scene partners’ work. Lucy Morrison’s directing is commendable for simply guiding these three strong, elegant performances to life, though she of course brings much more to the piece.
Morrison’s presentation of Michael John O’Neil’s play, his first full-length work, has the audience seated on either side of the performance space, with thin curtain’s surrounding the set itself. With Gill acting out the events leading up to the opening scene behind the curtains, Kelly entering and opening the curtains before interacting with her sister introduces the idea of bringing her sister back to reality, something explored more deeply later.
O’Neil himself should be proud of the characters he has created here, and of the realism and genuine humanity of his dialogue. The play could perhaps stand to lose 10 or so minutes to get to its stellar conclusion faster, but the characters were never anything less than captivating.
Behind the curtains, Naomi Dawson’s stage design is deceptively simplistic. The lack of furniture in the room where the entirety of this mostly real-time story takes place helps to highlight the lack of individuality which can often accompany such devout and restrictive religious communities. The combination of a line of overhead lights and the sort of carpet you might see in a slightly dated office building add to this, creating the idea of a professional if not overly forward-thinking place of work. Dawson’s costuming is also simple yet deeply effective – “I wanted to look nice for you,” Gill says of her now-dampened business casual attire, while her little sister spends much of the show in a wetsuit with the church’s slogan T-shirt over top.
The lighting and sound designs by Kevin Murphy (light) and Beth Duke (sound) work most effectively when used in tandem. A recurring element is Gill losing track of reality when faced with triggering or overwhelming situations, and the dimming of lights to indicate a loss of focus and a particularly strong moment of a ringing phone being heard from all directions help to encapsulate these feelings while keeping the characters grounded in reality.
A potentially divisive play – some may find the subject matter abrasive, and others will likely find that the overwhelming sorrow of the work makes it a difficult watch – but a strong showing for the creative team and performers, Akedah will help to start conversations about the impact of family and faith. Anchored by its two leading ladies and the deeply human nature of their dialogue, this production more than does justice to O’Neil’s stunning, incredibly promising debut.
Akedah plays Downstairs at Hampstead Theatre until March 18th.
Tickets available at: https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com
Photos by Helen Murray