After the End at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast

After the End
by Dennis Kelly
Vile Bodies
The Lyric Theatre, Belfast
3rd February 2018

Dir: Emily Foran
Cast: Maria Guiver, Paul Livingstone

You can tell a lot about a person when you put them together with another person, and likewise in theatre, you can do a lot by just placing two people in a room together. Put them in an enclosed space with no escape from each other (and from themselves) and things will happen, interesting things; particularly if it's a man and a woman, not all of them good things.

Context is important, so let's say the man and the woman are in complete isolation in a room together. The rest of the world might as well not exist and indeed it just might not. In After the End Mark and Louise are shut up in a nuclear fall-out shelter and they're both very lucky. Out with work colleagues on a office night out, after having rather a lot to drink and getting into a bit of an argument, Mark follows Louise out of the club just as an apparent terrorist attack detonates a small suitcase nuclear device. Half the city is destroyed, buildings are burning, but Mark has managed to carry Louise across the town to his fall-out shelter, sustaining only minor burns.

They're going to have to wait out until the radioactive fall-out reaches safe levels and an all-clear is sounded before they emerge from the shelter, but Mark is well prepared with supplies. They may have laughed at him when he bought the house with its own bunker, but Mark knew that we are living in dangerous times, and he's been proved right. They are alive and everyone else - including all the friends they were out with that night - are probably dead. All they have to do now is wait until a message breaks though the static on the radio. And try not to get on each other's nerves in the meantime.

Well, a man and a woman cooped up together in a very small enclosed space, you know that's not going to happen; the only question is how bad is it going to get. The answer - without giving too much away - is very bad.

Written in 2005, Dennis Kelly's After the End could probably have been seen as a psychological drama or indeed as a theatre experiment of what happens when you put a man and a woman in close proximity to each other in testing circumstances for a relatively short period of time. In 2016, when it was first produced by The Lir, National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College in Dublin, and even more so at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 2017 the piece bristles with political undercurrents in the light of recent proclamations between two lunatics playing a game of who has the bigger nuclear button.

Political, but perhaps not in the way that you might think. It's not so much having to face the increased likelihood of how we all might react should the Twitter war escalate - and judging how Mark and Louise react, it would seem to bring out the worst in people - but really it does come down to a question of who holds the balance of power. Even as survivors, locked in a bunker, there's a struggle for supremacy between the man and the woman, it's about threats, emotional appeals, about gaining the upper hand and the moral high ground. Whether one of them is in America and the other in North Korea, whether they are friends and work colleagues, put two people together on the world stage or in a locked room and tensions and a struggle to dominate and be in control will arise.

Directed by Emily Foran for Vile Bodies, there's no need to emphasise any of the subtexts or political implications of After the End; the truth and the realistic prospects of the situation should arise entirely from the situation of the two people in a nuclear fall-out shelter. And it does. In fact, it's essential that you don't think outside the box, so to speak, since it's very important that you relate more closely to the shifts of mood, tension and balance of power between the man and the woman within the shelter. If you hadn't seen two world leaders get into a stand-off on Twitter you'd probably think it a bit exaggerated, but as it is, the implicit threats and tensions that arise from a game of Dungeons and Dragons has probably never had such realistically disastrous consequences.

Contained within a wonderfully designed cutaway of a fall-out shelter, the intense focus on every word, gesture, hidden subtext and cross-communication between two people in a small enclosed space places a lot of close attention on the performances. Maria Guiver and Paul Livingston are thoroughly compelling in fearless performances that expose the true natures of Mark and Louise. Indeed, the degree to which they are physically exposed could even be seen as an indication of just how much their true nature is laid bare. The performances cause anxious winces and uncomfortable recognition from the audience - which attests to the power of the writing itself - but Guiver and Livingstone are unflinching, unwavering and credibly in character throughout, making this a gripping and intensely involving piece of theatre.

After a short run at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast from 1 - 3 February, After the End can be seen at The New Theatre in Temple Bar, Dublin from 6th to 24th February.

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