Review of The Mercy Seat, Part of York Theatre Royal’s TakeOver Festival

York Theatre Royal’s thrice-yearly TakeOver Festival is certainly to be admired. A performing arts festival programmed and run entirely by young people, it succeeds again and again in bringing compelling, often lesser known works to the fore, and could never be accused of shying away from the bold or, in the case of this year’s central production of Neil LaBute’s 9/11 drama The Mercy Seat, the brutal. Bravely selected by this year’s Takeover Artistic Director Ruby Clarke as the piece she wanted to direct, this vital, highly-charged play examines people’s capacity to utilise major tragedies as tools for personal gain, and – quite rightly – it’s a short, sharp shock of a theatre experience.

A two hander following Ben (Andrew Macklin) and Abby (Lesley Harcourt), two co-workers caught up in a seemingly unfulfilling but nonetheless obsessive affair, as they contemplate the ultimate deception in the light of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the work’s form is ideal for cranking up the tension to boiling point. The decision to stage the TakeOver production in York Theatre Royal’s terrifically intimate Studio space increases its effectiveness in this respect further still, as the audience feels trapped within both the physical and mental space the two characters inhabit for an uncomfortable but gripping 90 minutes.

A brilliantly spare set from Morgan Large places us within the very ordinary, recognisable environment of Abby’s urban apartment – it could be our own place; they could be us. Clever little touches – a sofa with a scattering of cushions, and a counter on which sits the brown paper bags that hold Abby’s groceries – add to our impression of the protagonists’ inherent “human-ness”, making it more difficult for us to feel entirely detached from them and their conduct. However, set against this, the enormity of the 9/11 attacks is writ large across the space – myriad “missing” posters line its walls, and even its floors, offering some idea of the scale of the tragedies that occurred that fateful day.

It’s an inspired juxtaposition of the monumental and the minute – loss of unthinkable proportions offset by the small, messy stuff of human life – and Harcourt and Macklin play it intelligently, unflinchingly and absolutely without vanity. By turns bitter, fickle, desperate, fragile, steely, they embody some of the ugliest yet most universal human traits, and command our rapt attention in doing so. The quality of both this production and the running of TakeOver as a whole suggests that those playing key organisational and artistic roles with the festival are destined for many more great things, and so too, we hope, is this fantastic York Theatre Royal initiative.

Grace Henderson

The Mercy Seat runs at York Theatre Royal until Saturday 15 June. TakeOver Festival has three installments per year: in March, June and October.

1. Image courtesy of Dan Cashdan.