A new play, which imagines a future where drugs' cheating on the athletics track mutates into genetic manipulation, eventually wins over Francis Beckett.
by Jonathan Maitland
Frankenstein Off The Starting Blocks
The pressure for an athlete to give his or her body something to enhance its speed or strength is, quite simply, that the others are doing it; and if you don’t do it too, they will beat you.
That’s the clinching argument, put by runner Eve’s coach in this strong new play set in the near future, and Eve reluctantly succumbs to it.
She agrees to treatment which will interfere with her genes – treatment she is assured will not show up in blood tests, for the doping police are condemned always to be playing catch-up.
“What’s the Russian word for sportsmanlike?” a character asks. “I don’t know.” “That’s because there isn’t one.” But of course it’s not just the Russians. It’s everyone.
Eve’s slow and reluctant descent into cheating is well-drawn, especially in one powerful scene between her and her coach, and the tension you feel watching it is no less because you know what the outcome will be.
The effect on her – the ruin of everything good in her life except for her victories – is laid out starkly on the stage.
Eve is played magnificently by Juma Sharkah, who manages by an inflection here, a movement there, to show the two great changes that overtake her.
First, when she moves from being a clean athlete to being a cheat and then after the end of her career. It is a performance of great sensitivity and assurance.
Rona, her coach, is far harder for an actor, and for that I blame the author. He writes in the programme that she was based on three people, Peter Mandelson, Rasputin and his mother, and perhaps that is the problem.
She is required to be clever, manipulative, persuasive and charismatic, and at the same time self-destructive, hysterical and unable to prevent herself from saying the uncontrolled things which will only damage her cause.
Zoe Waites chooses to act the former persona, dealing as best she can with the lines demanding the latter. It’s a fine effort from a very good actor. Nevertheless, no actor can make the character entirely convincing until the author takes another look at the script.
There is not a weak link in the cast with Daniel Fraser as Eve’s journalist boyfriend, Shvorne Marks as a fellow athlete, and Sarah Finigan as everyone else – most notably a sports official – all putting in convincing performances.
The author rightly identifies in the programme the biggest challenge facing any director of this play: “Conveying something of the reality of a major race at a huge global sporting event. Not easy when the play is in the round and there’s a limited budget.”
The solution from director Brendan O’Hea and designer Polly Sullivan is brilliant and devastatingly simple: a stage floor, underlit and divided into squares, capable of being everything, including a track for a running race. It’s quite enough to suspend disbelief for two hours.
However, the character of Rona is not the only problem with the script. The scene in which a sports official investigates Eve is hampered by the fact that the author has not decided whether Eve is to say she did not do it, or that she did it, and so what?
I am also not quite sure I am happy about the fact that both athletes are black, and all the other characters are white (a script issue, not the result of colour-blind casting.)
But overall, this is a very fine new play with a harsh contemporary feel, directed with great flair and acted with conviction. A green light from me.