“What pair of planets orbit around each other just because it’s convenient?” That’s the question that haunts Sarah, the protagonist of Holding, which opened on Tuesday at the Burton Taylor Studio.
Written and directed by Oxford mainstay Kirsty Miles, Holding stars Erin Malinowski as Sarah, a physicist who appears to be happily married. Her husband Nick (Alex McGovern) – also a physicist – has just received the promotion that Sarah had been striving for, owing in large part to Sarah’s uncredited help with his research. Sarah couldn’t be more pleased (or so she says) but she soon becomes unsettled by recurring dreams of a pixieish figure (Jodie Tyler), who seems to want something from her.
Sarah begins sessions with a therapist (Mariya Sait), who asks Sarah to try something new: why not dance with the figure in her dreams? So she does. As Sarah and her dream counterpart spin and stretch and comfort each other, Sarah realises that something in her psyche is trying to get out – and that her marriage might be the thing holding it in.
The production runs just shy of an hour, which means that every inch of the story is compact: in a play the length of a TV pilot, Miles manages to paint the portrait of a marriage ruled by physical laws. Sarah and Nick move like the stage is a magnet and they are iron filings – they’re dragged about, colliding and separating, helplessly pulled by some larger force.
Miles’ direction takes advantage of the script’s scientific underpinnings. After all, the same laws apply in physics and in love: attraction, repulsion, momentum, entropy. Sarah and Nick move around the stage in ways that seem dictated by physics, whether they are sitting parallel or sliding apart in perfect synchrony. Meanwhile, Sarah and the dream figure mirror each other in more abstract ways, and their dance sequences (choreographed by Gillian Konko with improvised violin by Momo Ueda) bring to mind the softer symmetries of nature – the imperfect symmetry of a shell or a feather. If Sarah’s relationship with Nick is all about maintaining balance, the dream figure knocks that balance askew.
Malinowski and McGovern have remarkable chemistry as the central couple, every touch and glance between them glittering with heat, which is why the show’s conflict plays so convincingly: they both, at some level, want their relationship to hold together. Malinowski, as Sarah, has a childlike perceptiveness that makes her vulnerable to being overwhelmed; the world is too strong for her. She’s so thin-skinned she’s practically transparent. In contrast, McGovern’s Nick is the stereotypical hard-nosed scientist, whose muted anxieties manifest in his lowered brow and obsessive monitoring of his wife. Sarah’s therapist is played in fine form by Sait, with the low voice and slightly tilted head of every therapist you’ve ever met. Yasmin Ziv and Ava Smith (as Nick’s colleagues) appear mid-show to briefly bounce off the walls, much to the audience’s delight.
The set changes are minimal and performed by the actors. The only furniture in Sarah and Nick’s apartment is a table and two chairs, although the space is cluttered with memorabilia of their life together, which scatters across the stage as their marriage dissolves. Luke Drago’s sharp lighting design lays bare the disorder of Sarah’s waking life, at odds with her dreams, in which moonlight seems to wash the stage clean. It is this contrast – between order and disorder, dark and light, inner and outer worlds – that threatens to pull Sarah apart.
As marriage continues to change as an institution, there is a need for theatre that explores it from a variety of perspectives. Holding takes up the cause – and it isn’t afraid to get physical.
Holding continues its run in the Burton Taylor Studio until 28th May. Tickets are available here.