Writing this review in the midst of the uncertainty of the unfolding pandemic in retrospect, the bubbly blue-yellow, mainly insular, indoor set of Sam Steiner’s ‘Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons,’ directed by Rebecca Gigliobianco and Natalia Izquierdo, has a weighted dimension. The couple, split into eight selves, are often helpless in stopping the political imposition of the Hush Law, where they are limited to speak only 140 words a day. The scene where the couples, gripping one another in different postures of those easing at home watching the television, now has a greater, poignant resonance. They are subjected to the drastic changes of their time, and despite the idealistic Oliver/Olive/Oli/Olivia half of the couple protesting against the unjust law, they have to watch it pass on television, gazing out into the audience with shocked and devastated masks as we collectively sat and waited for the inevitable at the end of the countdown.
‘Be Concise!’ a large yellow poster exclaims from the top of the protest wall, juxtaposed with the neatly ordered single-names of the pet cemetery (where the couple first meet). Words and slogans crowd the stage, hanging over the interior world of the couple’s flat. The stage, split into three sections of the couch, the bed centre and the kitchen table was well utilised by the many couples as they flitted along the fragmentary, non-chronological time-line. The backdrop reminds the audience that they are surrounded by words: words that are an integral form of expression for most people. In the programme, the Director’s Note expresses their desire to highlight how much control we have over our own lives and question how such a law would be enforced. They acknowledge the absurdity of such a law, but the concept does raise an interesting point: maybe it germinated from the same argument as Orwell’s Newspeak and limiting free-speech, only repackaged for the Twitter crowd.
One incarnation of the idealistic half of the couple, Olive (Alice Fox), even self-consciously references it in defence of free-speech and against the law. When it is revealed (a bit belatedly in the chronology of the play) that the couples announce their remaining word count for the day before they enter some scenes, the question of what can be said with what is left and what has been saved up is raised. They literally mind their words, some saved and some spent at different intervals of the day and across time. It is an interesting looking into the limits of language and how much we rely upon verbal communication to express ourselves. This also highlighted the difficulties and the closeness that other forms of non-verbal communication can bring to the intimacy of the couple, as they learn morse code and some sign language together.
This interpretation of the play has split the heterosexual couple into four different couples: the heterosexual Bethany (Mollie Brown) and Oliver (Piers Stratton), two lesbian couples Bernadette (Mima Wells) and Olive (Fox) and Beatrice (Connie Badley) and Olivia (Molly Anderson) and a gay couple Ben (Joe Fenna) and Oli (August Berner). Again from the synopsis, this is to allow the ‘audience to explore their relationships from different perspectives.’ Whilst I would agrees that it was an interesting choice to include the heterosexual selves in most of the couplings, it often felt like having homosexual partners enacting a heterosexual script did not quite add the non-heteronormative element they might have been aiming for. However, visually it was refreshing to see homosexuality represented through playful, everyday intimacy and the cast did not shy away from explicitly alluding to homosexual sex in a scene between Ben and Oli. What was a noticeable drawback from having so many split couples and a fragmentary timeline of the play is that it took a while to pair up which member of the couple was each side of the different pairs because the timeline jumped around so much and focused on very short moments in their lives.
However, once this was grasped and the ideological and moral standpoints of the couple began to clash, it was clear to the audience where the conflict in the growing relationship originated from the fairly fundamental differences in the either side of the couple’s views on the Hush Law. Bethany/Bernadette/Ben/Beatrice articulated an ambivalence about the law, whereas Oliver/Olive/Oli/Olivia joined protest marches against it. What I enjoyed – more the second time it happened than the first – was the moment where all couples, in different sections of the stage, enacted a choreographed dance-like movement, suggesting another element to their non-verbal and shifting dynamic as a couple. It could have come off as a bit naff and I was sceptical when it first happened, but by the time the characters had become more established in their story line, and the audience knew more about them, I enjoyed how it was a shared moment of connection linking the parts of the couples back up with each other as a shared entity. It suggested that, despite one couple being split into eight different people, their experiences of their ordinary-day lives in a tumultuous time were universal, and that the political will always affect the personal.
I think each incarnation of the couple did bring a new dynamic to the relationship: Brown and Stratton, as Bethany and Oliver, excelled in both the comedy and the tragedy of the titular ‘lemons, etc.’ scene, when Oliver runs out of words and is left drunkenly attempting to speak yet finds he is unable to, whilst Bethany has saved her words and brandishes them in a one-sided argument. Wells and Fox, as Berandette and Olive, were particularly strong in the verbally comedic scenes and demonstrated the couple’s more playful verbal dialogues with each other well. Fenna and Berner, as Ben and Oli, showcased the couple’s more physically playful side and it was touching to see how they were often draped over one another. One particular scene which expressed this well was when Oli (Berner) packs his jangling instruments to join the protest and wishes they will be heard from space, only for his idealism to be squashed by Ben’s (Fenna) rationality. Badley and Anderson, as Beatrice and Olivia, had a very natural, easy chemistry between them that was translated well into every scene they were in and it was enjoyable to watch them lead the cast in a playful song and dance to close the show.
Despite the show ending on this happy moment of unity between the selves, I did find myself waiting for some kind of resolution. Oliver/Olive/Oli/Olivia’s political activism was such an integral part of the play that I kept waiting for some kind of political resolution as well, yet was left waiting. The ending, charting more of the difficulties they face with their stunted communications, is left ambivalent as to whether the final song is a reflection on the happy times as they were or that they have come together in a moment of reconciliation. It seemed hard to imagine that they would just learn to accept their limited situation, but I understand the limitations with the fractured timeline. Still, this could be a comment on how language is not a fixed medium for communication and it will always have the ability to evolve.