Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
The ‘Play Pie Pint’ season continues, and this week’s offering is a dark comedy by Ukrainian playwright, Neda Nezhdana. The morgue where Vera (Louise Stewart) works is situated in an underground bunker, originally built as a bomb shelter. For Vera, this is just a normal, boring nightshift, babysitting the dead: filling out paperwork, flicking through a magazine and half-heartedly exercising – anything to pass the time. But then Vika (Yolanda Mitchell) stumbles from the freezer into the office, still drunk from the night before. She doesn’t know where she is, or why there’s a tag on her foot. Vera faints at the sight of a walking corpse and, when she comes round, she’s confused. Is Vika alive, or is Vera dead? Suddenly, shockingly, the two women realise the doors are locked and Vera’s phone has no signal. And then the landline rings…
He Who Opens the Door has been adapted by John Faradon, and – although the setting is still Ukraine – there’s a distinctly Scottish flavour to this production. I can see what director Becky Hope-Palmer is aiming for but, for me, this muddies things somewhat. It’s a metaphorical play, “reflecting the limbo for some people in eastern Ukraine, caught between opposing forces”, but I’m not immediately aware of where I am supposed to be: the signs, flags and magazine title tell me one thing, while the tone tells me another. Likewise, the programme says ‘present day’ but that’s not quite true: the script pre-dates the Russian invasion. This adds to my confusion, as I try to piece together what it all means. Not all of the jokes land, either, although the more serious points are eloquently made. I have to confess I’m a bit uncomfortable with Vera’s anti-abortion rhetoric (in particular, the assertion that women are always damaged by the process), and I’m not sure how this particular revelation contributes to the discourse. Still, this is only one idea amid a kaleidoscope of other, more enticing hypotheses about autonomy and independence.
In truth, there’s a lot of good stuff here. Both Stewart and Mitchell deliver strong, compelling performances, and it’s a lively, engaging piece. There are echos of Beckett in the waiting and uncertainty, and of Pinter too: those enigmatic phone calls reminiscent of the notes the dumb waiter delivers to hitmen Ben and Gus. Impressively, Hope-Palmer manages to convey a sense of time passing inexorably, as the women await their fates, while simultaneously offering us a play that gallops along at pace. Amidst the existential dread, there is dancing and singing; in the darkness, there is light.
He Who Opens the Door is not an easy play, but it is a fascinating one, and I can’t think of a more fruitful way to spend a lunchtime.