Review by Sam Waite
Warning: While not referenced explicitly in this review, Sap explores delicate subject matter including sexual assault, homophobia, and biphobia.
Bisexuality, even in openly queer spaces and communities, can carry a certain amount of taboo – bisexual men are routinely believed to simply be gay and afraid to come out fully, whereas women are derided for greed or indecisiveness. Women who identify as bisexual, as Rafaella Marcus’ Sap states, are also significantly more likely to be victims of emotional abuse from partners, and of sexual assault.
Sap is a story told by Daphne, named as such in the text but nameless along with most other characters in the text. Walking around the catwalk staging with the audience on either side, she takes us through the tale of an indeterminate amount of her life as though simultaneously experiencing and remembering it. Like Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum and Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag, Marcus’ Sap allows its central character to engage directly with her audience while delving into deeply uncomfortable themes.
Daphne is a bisexual woman in, presumably, her thirties, whose life is thrown progressively further off-kilter after a one-night stand with an attractive man she meets at a work lunch. Initially very attracted to him and intoxicated by the feeling of being wanted, mid-encounter she begins to question and doubt the man’s character and decides that this won’t happen again. A more fully formed relationship with a beautiful woman begins the next night and eventually meets two major stumbling points – the one-night stand was the girlfriend’s brother, and said girlfriend refuses to date bisexual women, who supposedly all leave for men.
With the text itself setting no boundaries around the number of actors used, both brother and sister are here played by Rebecca Banatvala. A dynamic performer, she switches easily between the physicality and vocal qualities of the pair, at one point within seconds. Banatvala manages to build an easy chemistry with her co-star while also delving into darkness to embody an increasingly threatening, dangerous presence in her life. Alongside these simultaneously carried dramatic arcs, her early role as Daphne’s colleague shows great comic timing as she finishes co-star Jessica Clark’s lines.
Clark, as narrator-protagonist Daphne, is breezy and easy to like from the first moment she steps on stage. Carefully pacing her emotions and eventually leaning into a frenzied, panicked physicality, she is so delicate and specific in how she speaks the narrations that it’s easy to visualise the scenes she sets. Tasked with reacting to the play’s more harrowing subjects, she presents such believable fear that one might assume this is her own true story. Though an omission of her sexual orientation begins much of her suffering, it is never difficult to root for and feel for her.
This, of course, is largely due to the work of playwright Rafaella Marcus. Previously seen as part of last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Sap is Marcus’ first full-length play, and her storytelling is immaculately paced across the 70-minute runtime. The running theme of imagined plant life growing around and throughout Daphne as a metaphor for the growing dishonesty and distress of her situation is never fully explained but is so vivid in its description that any confusion soon fell aside. It isn’t something to be understood, but something to be deeply felt.
Director Jessica Lazar and movement director Jennifer Fletcher have collaborated on a pair of perofmances whose movements are central to imagining the setting. Both understand when Daphne should present a more assured front and when she should be in a state of raw panic, adjusting both her delivery of lines and the way she holds herself to effectively show these shifts. Lazar also makes great use of the traverse staging, and of Rūta Irbīte’s simple set design – where a semi-reflective floor has been laid, Lazar and Fletcher direct Clark to leave handprints on the floor to indicate the impact the events of the play have on the world around her.
Likewise, the lighting by David Doyle and sound design by Tom Foskett-Barnes help to elevate the deceptive simplicity of Sap. Where Doyle’s changes in the intensity and hue of lighting help greatly in indicating a change of location or mood, Foskett-Barnes employs whispered voices to solid effect when Daphne becomes overwhelmed by her own thoughts. These voices are so well-presented and arranged that I initially thought someone in the audience was having a conversation mid-scene. Combined, with a low, too-intimate lighting and the rumbling of these voices, the effect is stunning.
Intimate but grand in emotional scope, Sap is an affecting, often painful look at the harsh realities which can impact the lives and relationships of bisexual women. With two phenomenal performers and a unique, daring script, the piece is sure to continue resonating with audiences and win over many new fans in the process. Though regularly uncomfortable and emotionally exhausting, the play is one of deep importance whose themes resonate from the offset and will linger in viewers’ minds long after the well-earned applause dies down.
Sap plays at the Soho Theatre Upstairs until April 22nd.
For tickets and more information, visit https://sohotheatre.com/shows/sap-by-rafaella-marcus/
Photos by David Monteith-Hodge