Mladinsko Theatre, Ljubljana, premiere 22nd April 2023
Nobody’s life is easy. But some people seem to go to extreme measures to make it even more difficult for themselves, their loved ones and acquaintances. Why would someone sabotage the only thing they possess – their life – in this way?
Those are often some of the questions we ask ourselves when we know someone who is struggling with addiction. Mladinsko Theatre prompted these questions by putting on Duncan Macmillian’s play People, Places & Thing. Directed by Matjaž Pograjc and featuring a strong cast, it had potential, but the question it left me asking is why did it fail in representing addicts and those close to them as actually being and not just seeming to be normal people.
Let us first look at the characters. Emma, played brilliantly by Janja Majzelj, is an actress, has a severe substance addiction problem and has finally decided to seek help on her own. She hesitantly visits a clinic and is met with doctors, staff and, of course, other addicts, as it is known that the battle with addiction is easier if you are not alone. Within all her interactions, Emma manages to be both consistent and unpredictable – it depends on how familiar you are with addicts’ typical behaviour. Majzelj keeps her character dynamic and ever-changing, although she is always carrying the same pain with her. We get to know her when she is aggressive, scared, vulnerable, protective, lucid and completely “out of it”. Those very different mental states are difficult to swim through even for the audience, but Majzelj carries them all with the perfect balance of pathos and subtlety. She never makes a caricature out of Emma, nor does she numb her feelings. Such concentration of emotion poured into this most chaotic of characters with none of them seemingly colliding is an extremely rare thing to witness in a performance.
I cannot praise Majzelj enough; she is also strongly supported by other actors, who might in fact be a bit overlooked because of Majzelj’s acting, yet there is almost no one here who brought the audience out of the immersive action. The action is, however, sometimes disrupted by a setting that jars with the moments of hyper-realistic acting. It might have been over-the-top to go with a completely realistic set, yet when showing us the patients’ rooms and therapy/counselling rooms, we could have benefited from a glimpse of the uninviting and impersonal environments in which addicts are hospitalised, so we might be able to better understand that those are pretty artificial, almost liminal surroundings, which can easily add to a person in distress.
Instead, Miloš Narobe’s scenography is an industrial construction of black metal poles and shelves. It is multi-purpose, thus it is effective in a way, but some of its elements are too abstract to warrant their existence. For example, the black floor is covered with white, almost fractal spirals for seemingly no reason. An argument for this choice could be, of course, that it symbolises the spirals the addicts witness during their healing process or the unsettling dissociations they experience while being high or lost in their lives. Yet only part of the audience sitting higher up is able to see them, while at the same time some sections of the audience cannot see the upper part of the construction, which makes the scenes in which the characters have their therapy sessions or meet their parents really hard for a section of the audience to see.
The upper part of the set is perfect for the puppets that in some places are used to represent the characters’ mental processes, and while those moments are carried out well, it is hard to understand why they settled on a scenography design that manifests itself in such a spectator-unfriendly way.
The titular people, places and things is a warning about the three things that can pull a person back in addiction. So, the people who you have complicated relationships with, the places that remind you of certain hard times in your life, and the things, the events or the objects that carry importance for people– in short: triggers. In Macmillan’s play, these triggers are disclosed explicitly in a very direct way and therefore come as a surprise when we recognise Emma’s triggers: the people (her family) and the things (her brother’s suicide) are very clear. The place, however, is invoked more subtly. The place where her parents live, for example, which could involve all three triggers, feels like a pleasant Easter egg, but it is a shame this scene is not better executed.
We follow the storyline of Emma for most of the duration of the play, which is here and there diversified with puppet sequences and musical inserts. While the puppets immerse us in deeper in parts of Emma’s personality and trauma, and play takes us into Emma’s subconsciousness, the musical numbers do not carry the same weight.
With such a serious theme that is still under-researched and stigmatised, it seems almost inappropriate to try to cheer up the mood with fun little songs and dances. They are not ineffective altogether, they might just hint at the way people play certain feelings down too much, but this is in itself problematic. Addiction is not a rare occurrence, but addicts in real life are seldomly considered empathetic, caring and responsible, because at times they don’t act like it, although if they actually are. Instead of just showing us the symptoms that we already know and recognise as abnormal behaviour, we get to know a little bit of an addict’s traumatic experiences, struggles with mental issues and the life decisions that led to addiction, which is fine. Yet it is a shame that this potentially brilliant show stays on the shallow side – as if always pitying them.
Director: Matjaž Pograjc //Translation: Andrej E. Skubic//Dramaturgy: Evelin Bizjak//Set design: Miloš Narobe//Set designer assistant: Sandi Mikluž//Costume design: Neli Štrukelj//Costume design assistant: Estera Lovrec//Visual concept and puppets design: Barbara Bulatović//Choreography: Branko Potočan//Language consultant: Mateja Dermelj//Lighting design: Matjaž Brišar//Sound design: Marijan Sajovic
For further information, visit: People, Places & Things • Mladinsko Theatre