We’re a quarter of an hour into Robert Holman’s 2008 play, and I’m struggling to remain upright. Sweat is running down my face; my vision is closing in. A ringing starts in my left ear, and slowly fills my head. I tense my calves to keep the blood flowing. Looking around the room I am not the only one in distress, a woman to my left is looking unwell. Her head lolls suddenly; the play is halted (with admirable concern and swiftness from the staff); the actors leave the stage; the lights go up. The woman recovers enough to leave the theatre, and we pick up from the same point. As others mumble their surprise at the sudden interruption, I regain my composure, and hope my sweaty shirt isn’t stinking out the back row.
To say the opening of Jonah and Otto overwhelmed our senses would perhaps be an overstatement. For my part, I suspect I had simply missed too many calories that day. Just an unfortunate set of coincidences. The piece, though confrontational in style, is not overtly shocking. There is a brief moment of physical threat, and a convincingly simulated fit. Besides that, we are mostly watching two men talk. The phrasing is disconcerting, however. Lines are clipped, and not quite natural. Though the setting (a ferry port, minimally evoked with occasional ambient sound) is mundane enough, we are not quite in the real world.
Otto (Peter Egan) is an old man, haunted by choices taken and opportunities missed. A faithless clergyman, when he says he doesn’t believe in God “because God doesn’t believe in me”, we know it is self-belief that he has lost as much as spiritual. Jonah (Alex Waldmann) also appears desperate, in need of direction, of insight into the people he has lost, and of love. He brings with him a baby in a shopping trolley, playing cards, a ready supply of fresh fruit, and a knife (to rob Otto, or to chop apples for his daughter?). The men argue, make judgments on each other and themselves, swear and smoke.
Further questioning the reality of the situation, a bold sequence gives truth to Jonah’s seemingly mischievous claims to be a magician, as he puts Otto to sleep and removes his suit. The effect is indeed magical; Jonah’s deft manipulation of the sleeping man, teenaged anarchy in his eye as he ridiculously swaddles himself in the much larger Otto’s clothes. The exposure of Otto’s ageing flesh, the surgical scars and knotted veins, is intensely poignant, evoked in a later speech where he talks of washing his late father’s body, in the hope of achieving the closeness and intimacy they didn’t have in life.
Jonah and Otto is daring, complex, sad, ultimately life-affirming theatre, performed confidently by talented leads, particularly Peter Egan, portraying disturbingly convincing glimmers of mortality. Also worth noting is the incredible professionalism and dignity with which the whole staff of this fairly new venue handled the early interruption. Go and see this play. If you can’t, visit The Park when you can. It’s a magical place.
Jonah and Otto runs until 2rd November 2014 at:
Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP
Bookings can be made via the online booking office