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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
Mercy Seat
by Brandy Bush
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Neil LaBute says of his most recent play, he is 'trying to examine the ground zero of our lives'. He is describing The Mercy Seat currently running as one part of Prime Cut Productions' double bill at the Lyric. The other piece being Pinter's Ashes to Ashes which is great too, bar the poorly timed echo that totally ruins the end and for which there is completely no need. Anyhow, this reviewer looks only at The Mercy Seat.
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LaBute's been an important figure in theatre, and indeed film, for more than ten years. He is prolific for a young (ish) writer with around 10 plays already under his belt and a film debut In the Company of Men (1997) that impressed enough to gain him the New York Critics' Circle Award for best feature and the Filmmakers Trophy at Sundance.
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The Mercy Seat then takes us to New York on 12 September 2001. The play opens to reveal an apartment scene, the air and surfaces clouded with the dust of New York's most famous yesterday. Under the dust the surroundings are modern and minimal. On the sofa is Ben Harcourt (Brian McCardie) in white shirt and the trousers from his business suit. His mobile phone is ringing but he will not answer it. This is not his apartment but belongs to Abby Prescott (Kate O'Toole), his boss and also the woman he has been having an affair with for the past three years. She enters the apartment, a scarf over her mouth, necessary to go onto the streets to find groceries in the shops that are almost emptied from the panic buying of New York's confused residents.
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Abby is encouraging Ben to answer the phone, as she knows his family must fear the worst; that he is lost in the Trade Centre where he works. We realise as the action unfolds that he could have been one of the victims had he not called to see Abby on his way to work as she imagined just to get a blow-job but as we come to understand planning to potentially end their relationship.
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The play is not about 9/11 in the sense that it wants to address the politics and terror of that day in broad, global or international terms and of course it does not have to. More 'end of the affair' then, than end of the world in that sense, but it still makes 9/11 a backdrop and a mirror to the smaller pains we can inflict upon one another as individuals, starkly often against the very ones we claim to care for most. 9/11 presents a grim opportunity in the mind of Ben Harcourt as he reveals he wants to use that day to begin a new life with Abby while holding on to the image of the man who was a devoted father and husband, even a fallen hero. The evidence would lead us to think that Abby should have more sense. Ben is pretty super-unlikable and as the pair wrestle the scenarios you cannot help but wonder about the world outside their apartment. LaBute is reminding us how selfish we all are sometimes even on a day like this.
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The play is brought to us by one of Belfast's key theatre companies Prime Cut who are not afraid of choosing 'difficult' work and who are significant in giving a platform to theatre you might otherwise have to get on a plane to find. They have provided previous theatrical enlightenment with productions of Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking, David Mamet's American Buffalo and Gregory Burke's Gagarin Way. This may not be as good as some of those, they still make going to the Lyric a painless experience, which as we all know is not always the case.
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