Many of the most dismal and unpromising narratives are saved by the inclusion of a protagonist, even an objectionable one, with the smallest amount of charm, talent, or value. Not so with Noah Wild’s I Will Delete This Story. A merciful judge might turn to the set design or supporting characters (which, to give credit where it’s due, were excellent) in the hopes of encouraging its salvation; but I am a lover of justice.
The Writer (Rei Ota) drags us and the characters backwards and forwards randomly over Sam Simpkins’ (William Fitzgerald) interminable sixth form years, interspersing scenes of awkward teenage chat (in indoor voices, no tonal modulation) with his own monologues, in which he asks faux-deep questions that invariably devolve into strings of unconnected, meaningless words. Ota’s performance shifts to match, becoming erratic in movement, meaning, and volume (indeed, line delivery seemed to be a problem throughout; for example, Fitzgerald’s speech was so quiet that I found many sections of his dialogue to be completely incomprehensible). This structure left the audience with little sense of any linear narrative. I have no objections to the general concept of “making your audience think,” but having to do mental arithmetic every time a new scene was introduced, often simply to work out which character was which, rather distracted me from my unsuccessful attempts to enjoy the play.
One of the greatest barriers to that enjoyment was the treatment of the female and non-binary characters in the play. The presence of a textually non-binary character seemed at first like a glimmer of hope – but it was not to last. Their gender identity, whenever it was mentioned, existed solely to provide opportunities for misgendering-based humour for the cishet male main characters. Sam consistently referred to Zara (Kay Kassandra) as ‘she’ – ‘they’ seemed to be a word unfamiliar to the rest of the characters, who pronounced it as though it were something they’d never heard said before. It would, however, be unjust of me to imply that Kassandra’s performance was anything short of delightful. She brought a very true charm and sense of joy to scenes which would otherwise have been slow and emotionless, a real achievement given the slackness of Wild’s dialogue and the ill treatment Zara receives from Sam and his friend Kieran (James Gardner, who gave a sympathetic and intelligent performance although hindered by a clumsy script). Sam fails to demonstrate at any point that he values any of the people he has romantic relationships with for anything other than their capacity to provide sex; the audience, through the Writer’s monologues, is invited to sympathise with him. A particularly repulsive scene comes as Sam asks Kieran to leave a house party early so that he can sleep with Zara, who has just turned sixteen – and, when Kieran has left, it is revealed that they have previously had sex. The problem lies not in the acknowledgement that teenagers often have sex before they have reached the legal age of consent, but in the hyperawareness of legality and ‘correct’ behaviour, and the secrecy regarding contravention of these norms. This and the objectification of Zara throughout make for a deeply unpleasant viewing experience.
Emma (played engagingly but sometimes inexpertly by Marianne Nossair) receives similar treatment. It seems, for a time, that she is acting as a voice of reason in this play; indeed, she encourages Sam to talk about his feelings and continue his creative writing as a way of dealing with his past experiences (experiences which he is adamant no longer affect him). It seems, for a moment, as though we are watching a play about a deeply damaged man surrounded by reasonable people who are trying to help him. However, this is followed instantly by an extended physical sequence of Emma trying to pick up rubbish from the floor as she cries, and more rubbish is dumped around the stage, until she can no longer cope with the volume and retreats to the back of the stage to thrash about and sob violently. Admittedly, this is one of the more engaging performance moments in the play, but the message is less palatable. Emma – who up until now has seemed outgoing, reasonable, and sweet – is portrayed as someone deeply volatile and troubled, with very little grip on reality. From this point on, in her argument scenes with Sam, it is clear that she is supposed to seem overemotional and unreasonable, while Sam – adamant throughout that he is in the right – is supposed to seem balanced and calm. There is, here, a clear employment of misogynistic tropes used (perhaps unconsciously) to promote Sam and the Writer’s narrative of self-importance – again, one we are invited to sympathise with.
While this renders the text and characters within the play largely unpalatable, there is something to be said for the production design. The clearly delineated chain from Writer to text to stage was embellished by the costume and set choices, as colours linked certain cast members and set pieces to each other, and the visual effect of the set (furniture painted white with dialogue from the play written on in black) was striking. However, the set was clumsily used, with unnecessary movements between scenes which may have benefitted from an emptier stage altogether. The same is true for the props, which seemed to hinder rather than help the actors. When one is pretending that the cup one is holding is full of beer, it is best to keep it upright, or the audience will notice it has been spilt.
It is entirely possible, of course, that the weaknesses in performance were due to misdirection; Ota and Fitzgerald in particular had some promising moments which indicated that perhaps, under slightly different circumstances, they would have given skilled and entertaining performances. The general effect of this inconsistency in the focalised character was to create a blurry and distorted lens through which the audience were expected to interpret the play – I, at least, have as yet failed to reach a conclusion on whether Sam is being praised or criticised for his behaviour (behaviour that, devoid of narrative lens, I find to be reprehensible), which indicates to me a fundamental failure to communicate accurately whatever message or feeling the play may have been intended to convey. Overall, I found that I Will Delete This Story left me wishing that the titular promise had already been fulfilled.