A frightening and concussive nightmare, but leaves you bewildered. Cut isn’t as clean as it could be, with a blunt text gumming superb production.
In Cut, an air hostess is being stalked by a man with ash-coloured eyes. He follows her to her apartment. But she’s waiting for him.
Where do I start with Cut? It would be easy to write an opening paragraph about my views on violence against women if that’s what Cut was about, but it’s not. Having read Cut’s synopsis, you’d think that this is absolutely what the play’s about, but what would fringe theatre and new writing be if it didn’t turn expectations on its head.
Duncan Graham’s play, having already run to good acclaim in Australia, doesn’t just turn expectations. Rather, it spins them to the point of being so dizzy you’re not sure whether what you’re looking at is the point its trying to make or whether you’ve ended up facing completely the wrong direction. Indeed, unless you’ve taken the time to read the programme notes and discover that Graham’s influence are the Greek Fates, you probably won’t later piece together that Cut is a show that questions our autonomy, deliberating over whether what we do is pre-determined or the result of our past: is our heroine a pawn or a psychopath? Graham’s exploration of fate and destiny is actually fairly intelligent if you get this gist, leaving little hints and provocations to either side of the argument along the way. But, because it’s not obvious what Cut is trying to say, you risk leaving the show wondering what it was all about and whether anything that happened on stage had a purpose.
Not helping this is Graham’s deliberate fractious and nightmarish approach: “Lynchian” (refer to surreal filmmaker David Lynch, famously known for television saga Twin Peaks) is a word not unfairly used in the promotional material. In fact, Graham is perhaps too good at this. There’s sudden jumps in time in the present cat and mouse chase, cutting feverishly to dream sequences and spectral backstory: all told in both first and third past and present tense. It’s cleverly disorientating and discomforting, but lucid enough that you don’t lose complete footing on the narrative’s progression. But in doing so, it makes Cut that bit too oblique, and thus it muddies it’s point and impact because you’re never able to settle into anything for long enough to discover its ultimate direction.
The other main criticism of Cut is that its pacing and the intensity, though intense and shocking to begin with, doesn’t change. Because of this, Cut really suffers from a lack of variety. It’s an hour of the same constant bombardment that doesn’t let up or change tune; you become so conditioned to it that it becomes samey rather than shocking. Yet there are some tremendous passages of building of tensions here, for example, a fantastic sequence that plays with the theme of mirrors, windows, and reflections before our hunted confronts the hunter, that are worthy of praise. But given that so much of Cut is the same pitch and volume as the rest of it, it gets blended in too much with the rest of it all to really grab your attention in a way that it should. The only thing that ends up engaging you is a morbid curiosity to see how the narrative is going to end. But if you find yourself not particularly bothered about that, there’s nothing else to hold your attention.
Although an interesting concept told through a tense, violent, and frightening scenario, written with flourishes of inspired and disturbing discombobulation, Cut is ultimately unsatisfying: it’s point is drowned by the textual din, and the eventual normalisation of its intensity dilutes its own horror.
Direction & Production
What I love about The Vaults as a space is not just its atmosphere, but its flexibility. When a company comes in and works with the space creatively and ingeniously, you get productions like Cut that bowl you over. Becky-Dee Trevenen creates a twisted traverse of clinical claustrophobia and white shrink warp, book-ended with literal black mirrors. It’s a pod of pure petrification, clean and vaguely familiar, but seething with a sinister vibrations.
On top of this, Cut has some exquisite sound and lighting design from Russell Goldsmith and Sam Hopkins respectively. Goldsmith’s sound is a constant barrage of distorted noise that physically pounds you at times. But there’s so much work with live and interactive feedback, where live sound is distorted and altered to create Cut’s oppressive aural landscape. Even the “thud-thud, thud-thud” of departing trains above is purposefully picked up by the sound design and blasted into scenes: a brilliant incorporation of one of the site’s foibles. But it’s not just the amplification and sound treatment that deserves applause, there’s also the constant switching between using the room’s natural acoustic, whiplashing your ears all over the place. Regarding the lighting, whilst Hopkin’s constant plunging into complete (and I mean complete) darkness is clever and unnerving, how tension is created through low lighting and darkened shadows makes Cut seem frighteningly unreal and is more and is actually far more impressive.
Graham’s direction plays with the moments of complete darkness incredibly well to really toy with the audience. The performer would often turn up somewhere completely different from where you last saw them, or sometimes not, constantly stirring that edge of uncertainty and danger. Elsewhere, the pace is driven hell for leather throughout really giving you a sense of being pursued, that would be exhausting if it wasn’t the default setting. Then, there’s Graham’s use of shrink wrap/packing film that becomes a strange yet effective visual theme in Cut’s climax that’s as clever as it is unsettlingly weird, showing the entire production to be one that’s really striking out for something bold and visionary, for which it really achieves.
Cut is undoubtedly a masterful and striking experience, in spite of the text. The only problem is the same as with the text, in that it loses its effect by not doing anything different to what it started with. Although the direction and production very faithfully matches the text’s (unsurprising with Graham involved in both), a bit of discretion to add more moments of silence or atmospheric juxtaposition would serve to make Cut that bit more engaging.
Hannah Norris gives one literal hell of a performance. You always get the sense that she’s not all there, in that what we see is either a vessel and/or there’s something more troubling underneath. Her emptily sincere flight-attendant demeanour feeds into something more unhinged and not quite right. Norris is brilliant as both fleeing victim and controlled tormentor, in a whirlwind of wide-eyed neurosis that’s petrifying to be in the presence of, outside of the sheer chill of her cool when she’s in rubber, gloves, sunglasses, and brandishing a sizeable pair of scissors. A beautiful and ravishing psychosis.
Cut is a show of fantastic production and brave ingenuity like nowhere else on the fringe scene. But you’ll have to make do with a text that could do with a lot more work to make it more engaging and varied.
Cut plays at the Underbelly Med Quad (venue 302), Edinburgh, EH8 9AG, until 29 August 2016. Tickets are £14.50 – £15.50 (concessions available). To book, visit tickets.edfringe.com.
Cut was reviewed during its run at The Vaults, London, SE1 7NN, in July 2016.