Everyone dreams of a fresh start. The desire to leave our cluttered, anxiety-ridden lives behind and flee to some bucolic utopia is one deeply embedded in the human psyche. That idyllic house-in-the-country, free from the pressures and stresses of the urban rat race, is the ambition of many. But why? Why should life’s ever-present troubles give up their pursuit in the face of an arduous two hour journey down the M4?
This is the question Martin Crimp asks with The Country, a tense three-hander in which a couple’s pastoral paradise is gradually shattered by the resurgence of their old, allegedly abandoned vices. Nicholas Finerty and Phoebe Hames play Richard and Corinne, a doctor and his housewife who have recently relocated to the countryside. When Richard arrives home carrying a beautiful young girl (Gráinne O’Mahoney) he claims to have found unconscious by the roadside, Corinne’s suspicions spark furious domestic strife that threatens to obliterate their newfound tranquillity.
Crimp’s masterfully crafted script does not reveal nearly as much. He teases the audience, provoking their curiosity but always refraining from satisfying it. Richard’s murky past and his questionable relationship with the young girl are merely hinted at. Drug addiction, adultery, abuse of his position – all are variously implied through sporadically-dropped clues but one always feels slightly in the dark, as if sitting in a lecture without the handout.
Not that this is a bad thing. It makes for gripping drama and provides the ideal platform for the actors to play with the text. Finerty, Hames and O’Mahoney have enormous fun in slyly grabbing the audience’s attention. For them, subtlety is all; a curt remark, a sentence left dangling in the air, or a miniscule contortion of the features can twist the viewer’s perception one way then suddenly drag it in another. It is an effective reflection of Corinne’s festering distrust for her husband and director Sam Ward must take credit for luring the audience into this malleable realm of provocative ambiguity.
All three performances are, for the most part, convincing. Finerty portrays Richard’s world-weariness well, yet also manages to imbue him with the frantic urgency of a man with something to hide; he is simultaneously recognisable and not, familiar and foreign, like a family member whose secret coke habit you’ve only just discovered.
O’Mahoney is similarly nuanced: provocative yet somehow timid, hers is a character whose mystery is of paramount importance, and she captures this well, only occasionally straying into idiosyncrasy. It is Hames, however, who truly impresses. Powerfully real, her loving-wife-cum-reluctant-detective is both endearing and irritating.
At just over an hour long, The Country is a concise, expertly constructed domestic thriller – a Patricia Highsmith novel within the confines of a kitchen. Ward and his cast have managed to define the thought-provoking issue at the heart of Crimp’s play – is it ever possible to escape our past? – without sacrificing its edge-of-your-seat tension. It is a genuinely memorable production.