A Lady of Substance
Venue: Tristan Bates Theatre 1a Tower St, Covent Garden, London, WC2H 9NP
Jon Cooper’s play straight from Manchester’s 24:7 Theatre Festival sets up a collision of cultures: classical European sensibilities of art and poetry versus contemporary hip hop African and Caribbean language and music and a ‘generation gap’ between the hopes and aspirations of contemporary youth and the spent promises of a seemingly more privileged generation who were given a good education to make something of themselves. A Lady Of Substanceexamines these issues from the perspective of the legacy of the emancipated woman: what can they pass on to younger women through their fears, vulnerability and paradoxes that show how having equality under the law with men exposes a host of other more subtle and pernicious inequalities they deal with as part of their every day lives. The two roles of Jasmin and Cassandra are played by Tia Bannon and Joyce Greenaway respectively: with both performers giving evocative performances throughout the eighty minute production.
All that seems before the middle aged Cassandra and the sixteen-year-old Jasmin when Jasmin chooses to break into Cassandra’s house through an unlocked back window. The place is littered with packing boxes, though there is furniture and other things around which clearly seem to be still in use: a comfortable sofa, a few shelves on which sit poetry anthologies and a hi fi system. However, when the audience first spies Jasmin moving about the room, drinking alcohol and playing music, it might have assumed like I did that she was in her own home. It is only when on hearing a door open and seeing Jasmin duck behind packing boxes that I realise she has possibly arrived unwelcomed into the space. This is confirmed when Cassandra returns, pre-occupied with the burden of carrying her orange Sainsbury’s bag full of vodka, whiskey and wine bottles. She sits on the sofa and begins drinking, after curiously placing two different glasses before her on the coffee table as if she was pouring drinks for two people. A noise from amongst the packing boxes disrupts her drinking and propels Jasmin into her life.
The pun on the word substance in Cooper’s title relates to the way the play characterises Cassandra and Jasmin as users of drugs and alcohol and how, in turn, drugs and alcohol relate to psychological and cultural contexts: Cassandra through her use of alcohol to calm her fear of failure as a writer and Jasmin in using cocaine to fill the void of her parents’ inattentiveness towards her. What proves even more interesting is the way Cooper develops their stories through placing the finality of death into these responses and then ties it to both their relationship with having an artistic imagination and developing personal relationships: this is made clear for Cassandra through the death of a partner and for Jasmin, the death of her mother.
Death complicates Cassandra’s and Jasmin’s worlds and, ironically, simplifies the choices before them as women, daughters, potential nurturers and partners. Cooper’s brilliance can be seen in the way that he presents the roles of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ as looming parts of the drama that are continuously reconfigured in terms of the action before us as we watch Jasmin and Cassandra elicit a sense of responsibility from one another. The role of parent and child is exchanged between the two as the alcohol and cocaine is passed around, posing questions for the audience about what should a sixteen year old and a middle aged woman be excepted to do and know. The issues are drawn up with even more contemporary nuances, given the fact that Cassandra’s long-standing homosexual ‘marriage’ to her partner is for all intension equated to that of Jasmin’s parents commitment to one another.
At the same time, the contrast between Jasmin and Cassandra is exploited at every level of the drama. The actors play off each other to distinguish the subtle differences brought about by their age, class and race. Its as if the pair hold the ‘type’ of character they imagine the audience is viewing when they see them physically, and then redraw each part of themselves from the inside out: Cassandra, her white, middle-class educated self and Jasmin her black, urban savvy, working class persona. In this context, the alcohol and cocaine act as a kind of bacchanalian re-mixer of typical behaviour in which a middle-class poet gets to rap and a black teenager gets to speak in the style of Western poets. Director Samantha German is able to call out and shape two very fine performances from Bannon and Greenaway: her attention to every detail and use of iconically important objects, such as the Cassandra’s baseball bat and Jasmin’s overburden under-shoulder bag, is beautiful to watch.
I came away impressed by the depth of Cooper’s characterisations. Nonetheless, the play left me feeling dubious about three aspects of its construction. The first was a silly practical matter that kept coming to mind as I watched the actors drink the alcohol and snort the cocaine. Could anyone remain even half as coherent and insightful as these two characters did with that amount of chemicals in their bloodstream? I quickly dismissed the idea and reminded myself that this was theatre and a suspension of disbelief was needed to operate. However, the unaffected actions and speech of the two characters did still worry the mother in me who only recently moved from being someone with three teenage daughters and seeing them move through the party and pubs phase of their lives. Cassandra surely shows that for some, the phase remains a lifetime addiction. So, I couldn’t see why the production pulled short of exploring ‘substance abuse’ through speech and movement. Secondly, the almost instantaneous development of warmth and friendship between Cassandra and Jasmin also seemed a little unreal. Perhaps it was just that there wasn’t enough time expressed in the play between their first meeting and the subsequent series of events that follow. If we are to believe in the characters as hard cases of one kind or another – Cassandra as the disillusioned artist and Jasmin as the hardened street kid – then the warmth that comes about almost from the beginning is simple unbelievable.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the production is the idealism expressed through Jasmin who, for me, on occasions sounded like a spokesperson for a whole generation telling us how they have had to almost parent themselves while their parents got on with being overwhelmed with their lives: how their parents’ generation was totally unprepared with dealing with death and other disasters and had little appreciation for all the opportunities which they had been given in their lives. Tia Bannon speaks Jasmin monologues with such conviction that I literally wanted to stand and applaud her then and there. But the truth is even harder I suggest for Jasmin in the real world, the dangers so much more lethal and the lack of care so much more hurtful. Come to think of it, perhaps Jon Cooper did me a favour in seeing a strong, intelligent, resilient, resourceful and courageous Jasmin. It is enough to know that she might exist.
Reviewed by Josey De Rossi 23 March 2012
Staged in Tristan Bates Theatre ‘Plays by Young British Writers’ until 14 April.