Much like the unassuming, recently accredited sobriety group leader (Sam Trotman), the audience has no idea what to expect from a meeting of addicts in a community hall in the middle of the woods on a stormy night. This is Hermetic Theatre Company’s Bright those claws that mar the flesh.
A resounding thunder clap welcomes us to the play. The appearance of a strange girl (Hayley Sullivan), draws our attention from the first instant. Rarely does this odd, though highly compelling, comedy give us a moment of relief from the outset.
Michael McStay’s script is clever. He has woven many literary and cultural references into the text (most notably the Sylvia Plath poem ‘Pursuit’ from which the title is derived), and he brings many strange elements into one setting, continually adding more depth and unexpected plot developments, and somehow they work. His characters are verbose and obnoxious, rarely engaging our sympathy but often engaging our intellect with their idiosyncrasies and profundities.
The first character introduced, Sullivan’s Leda Swann, is a disturbing and mystical entity, much like the Greek myth her name references- in which Zeus, in the form of a swan, rapes Leda, Helen of Troy’s mother. Sullivan’s Swann remains a brooding mystery for much of the piece, and whilst she piques intrigue and commands attention, ‘she’s very good’ as the characters say, her plot is the least developed, which becomes an issue near the conclusion of the piece.
We then meet our sobriety support leader, a charmingly ill-equipped Trotman, who stumbles about the stage in an attempt to bring order to this meeting. One by one we are introduced to the addicts; the overeager knight-errant Edmundia Dante (Zoe Jensen) (another nod, this time to Don Quixote), an arrogant judge Orson Rubb (Nick Masters), an effusive actress Tabitha Mendaciad (Meg McGlinchey), her ex-husband the conceited Sir Rexion Mustyorsky (Sam Devenport) and their baby Euclid (Laurence Rosier-Staines).
McStay’s fast-paced script, aided by his ambitious yet clear direction, brings to life these outlandish characters and the nonsensical events that transpire over the course of the evening; a baby being dragged in a cage, a rehearsal for a production of Euripides’ ‘The Bacchae’ (a Greek tragedy that explores the binaries of man’s rational and instinctive sides, clearly inspiring the concerns of this work), an attempted sex change, an aging potion and eventually somewhere along the way a sobriety meeting.
The first half of the play has a palpable drive as we’re introduced to the strange characters, each wilder than the last, yet as the play progresses it is slightly hampered by its unexplained symbolism and ever growing irrationality. As the play draws on, Arrestis Mock (an aloof Jack Angwin) enters and he and Swann are quickly revealed as the manipulators behind the characters at play. Together, Swann and Mock play at the addicts’ fears and desires, controlling them effortlessly. The symbolism becomes a little too abstract and the meaning behind these manipulations is never revealed, resulting in a mildly unsatisfying conclusion.
The actors handle the sharp dialogue with ease, exulting in the bizarre nature of their characters. They heighten the farce of the piece, which only helps to elevate its comedy. The play, and its actors, don’t take themselves seriously for a moment, and that’s why this play can succeed in its absurdity.
Bright those claws holds a definite commentary on the nature of addiction, and at a deeper level all humanity, yet what exactly this commentary is isn’t entirely clear. Although, perhaps that’s the point. This play revels in the depravities, intricacies, and eccentricities of the human condition in a comedic and consistently intriguing form, and that’s enough.