Review by Sam Waite
Sharp, hot, distinctive, and better suited to some tastes than others – Mustard, Eva O’Connor’s self-penned piece on grieving a relationship and the healing powers of cycling, water, and condiments, shares many qualities with its namesake. Mustard, the condiment, and Mustard, the play, are both made from the broken remains of their central ingredient – seeds, in the condiment, and our heroine, E.
E is casting her mind back to a year before, and taking us along on her rambling, often deeply poetic journey. She tells us all about The Cyclist, whose sizeable house she had to leave, about their initial meeting of minds and melding of bodies, and eventually about the nails that sealed the coffin of their once-passionate relationship. Both a metaphor and a literal statement, her mind frequently goes to mustard.
In a clever but potentially alienating move, neither O’Connor’s script nor her performance gives clarity to just how literal her obsession with the condiment is. A powerful moment of performance art finds her crouched in a paddling pool, coating herself in what I can only assume (given the lack of overwhelming scent) was some sort of yellow paint – this is how The Cyclist found her, up to her neck in mustard, perhaps literally drenched in it, or maybe just overcome by pervasive emotional issues or mental illness. The real power is in not knowing and allowing the potential symbolisms and metaphors to run through your mind.
Much more clear-cut and direct in its ups and downs is O’Connor’s work as an actor. Neurotic, stunted in her emotional growth and willing to put up with increasingly dismissive treatment, E is easy to sympathise with and even easier to feel devastated for. Without shedding a tear, O’Connor makes it clear just how heartbroken she is and how difficult it is to let go not only of her relationship, but of the craving for mustard – the potential metaphor is up for debate, but her emotional dependence is crystal clear.
Under Hildegard Ryan’s direction, the play does so much with so little in terms of set design and visual aids. The paddling pool, 8 or so jars of mustard (or paint), a clothesline and a bucket of water do more to engage and develop the narrative than a larger, more in-depth set could. Along with this handful of props, a scroll of paper is spread across the floor during one monologue, leading to E leaving her yellow, increasingly faded footprints along its path. That metaphor is much clearer – her mind “going to mustard” leaves its impact as she tries to continue her life and move towards her future.
Lighting by Marianna Nightingale matches the tone of the script and performance throughout, dimming to differing levels when E’s emotional spirals may keep her from seeing the bigger picture, and a final moment where a fade to black feels like finding peace. When the lights go back up from these dimmer moments, the world is in harsher focus, and it raises our concerns for what the next moment of dimness might bring her way.
O’Connor employs poetic language choices, making it apparent from the earliest moments that this hour-long monologue will in fact be romanticised and taken to its extremes by its heroine. Certain key phrases and points – the house’s creaky stairs remaining quiet as she sneaks down them, or The Cyclist holding her face like a precious stone – are repeated in altered contexts to add to their weight and give real impact to the changes E goes through in her life and relationship.
O’Connor is also refreshingly bold in her approach to characterisation – she doesn’t need you to think E is the better person or behaves more fairly and justly, and she doesn’t need you to believe that those who aggravate her are inherently irritating people. She only asks that you take the facts on board, and that you stick around to hear how E finally found catharsis, with or without her preferred condiment.
Thought-provoking and packing a surprising amount of emotional revelations into barely an hour, Mustard serves as a reminder of just how rich and rewarding live theatre can be as an experience. While I found myself occasionally hung up on the metaphor vs condiment debate and some may find themselves wishing that a definitive answer had been given, this is still a sensational piece of work and more than worth a taste test.
Mustard plays at the Arcola Theatre until June 3rd.
For tickets and information visit https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/mustard/
Photos by Jassy Earl