2023, Illumine Theatre

Based on a real-life law that will come into fruition, as the title suggests, in 2023, this is a work that treads on the murky ground of the ethical implications and practical consequences of sperm and egg donation, dealing in the meantime with a variety of other concerns, prominent among which are inherited disability (deafness specifically), identity and sense of self, and racial tensions in the fallout of the Brexit referendum. All of these are heavy subjects to deal with, and the play navigates the main risk attached to them – that of becoming preachy, rather than actually exploring the topics – in a clever and attentive way. When dealing with matters that are both complex and sensitive like the ones 2023 explores, it is always wise to ask questions rather than try to provide answers. In this, playwright Lisa Parry is undoubtedly successful, and the play comes across as an honest and thoughtful exploration of all the many sides of its subject matters, that does not claim to come to an unequivocal conclusion of the right/wrong type, but rather presents a scenario in as accurate a way as possible, and tries to disentangle the many conflicting strands that it is made up of. The audience is allowed to form its own opinion rather than guided to a specific conclusion; this means that 2023 succeeds in being the thing that, one suspects, it was its primary goal to be – a truly thought-provoking piece.

 

Stephanie Back and Richard Elis

Just by looking at such a list of important subject matters it would also be easy to think that the play is at risk of having too much on its plate, especially as it is not a particularly lengthy work. For most of the time this is not the case; the various topics addressed are well balanced among themselves and come together in a believable narrative without interference. The one possible exception might be, at times, the reflection on the condition of British citizens of European heritage in a post-Brexit world: the glimpses offered on the rising tension surrounding this are intriguing, but by necessity sparse, and they can at times feel like they would better belong in a play of their own, where they could be fully explored without deviating too much from the core subject of the action. While it is clear why this particular concern was included in the play, as it adds to the tension between the character and it does contribute further nuance to their development, it is not as well-integrated as the rest of the topics are.

The same kind of careful attention that has been placed in presenting the narrative without openly taking sides or coming to a final judgement is also applied to the characters, who come across as believable humans, with both endearing and frustrating sides to what are well-designed, well-rounded personalities. All three characters are not always likeable, but, what is more important, they are always credible; throughout the play one has the impression of watching the very real interactions of real people. The narration being, as it is, at the crossroads of so many different issues, this feeling of credibility is crucial, and all three performers must be applauded for maintaining it even in the most emotionally loaded scenes, or when their characters are at risk of coming across as unpleasant. Stephanie Back’s performance as Mary is particularly strong, conveying in a believable way the sense of awkwardness felt by her character, her stubbornness and the more angular sides of her personality. It was a particularly challenging role to tackle, and the result was incisive and well-rounded.

As a work that chooses to deeply engage with some of the most controversial issues of contemporary society, 2023 is certainly food for thought, and it works excellently in opening a conversation – perhaps even a debate – that has no clear-cut answers but is certainly likely to leave its audience reflecting upon subjects that would not have crossed their minds otherwise. It is also a genuinely endearing work, creating characters that it is equally easy to care for and be angry at. Its playwriting, directing, and acting are strong in most cases, and the rare points in which this work feels weaker are when it has too much to say all at once – a trait that is not necessarily entirely a flaw. It is certainly a play that will stay with its audience far after its end; if its aim was to be incisive, then that aim has been clearly fulfilled.

Chapter, Cardiff, Until October 13

Main image: Richard Elis

Images: Kirsten McTernan

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