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Deuteronomy Review: Breath-taking, Heart-stopping, Terrifying

There are times in one’s life – breath-taking, heart-stopping, terrifying times – when one feels as though one is witnessing genius. Watching Deuteronomy is one of those times. Charlie Thurston’s script is an intelligent and moving piece of writing in Beckett’s tradition, but, whilst it necessarily grapples with the question of meaning in one’s life, it seems, also, to provide an answer.   

The succinct play sits at about forty-five minutes and is a Platonic-dialectical conversation between two characters: the Man (Jo Rich) and the Beggar (Freddie Houlahan). Neither dragging nor rushing, it is exactly as long as it needs to be – a tough balance to achieve with any new writing, let alone something so philosophical. And, despite its lack of explicit plot, it does not feel devoid of action. Thurston’s direction, and Rich and Houlahan’s compelling performances have imbued every line of the script with genuine meaning – both philosophical and emotional – so each conflict is a credible, enthralling piece of action. Rich and Houlahan move with grace and skill from pitch to pitch, balancing moments of horrifying anger with still, subtle, sadness; the fun of conversation with the tragedy of conflict; the intense and the casual and the tragic side by side.  

These changes in emotional register are reflected in Thurston’s script, whose subtle shifts and juxtapositions are some of the most affecting elements of the play. Much of the dialogue is explicitly philosophical: the characters discuss death, religion, language, the essence of objects. Is a rotten apple still an apple? Is a damaged thing no longer what it was undamaged? Does this matter, as long as happiness can still be derived from it? Part of Deuteronomy’s genius is in the importance of little things: we may not know why we are alive, we may not know why or when we will die; but we know “about trees and toadstools and the smell of a forest before it rains” – and this matters. Deuteronomy finds beauty in the experience of having lived, however terrible the world we have lived in: the joy of life embodied in the eating of a rotten apple. The play itself is a thing ephemeral, but it is a thing of beauty, and it matters that one has watched it. Its language, too, is beautiful; the Beggar and the Man speak in an odd dialect, a mixture of dropped aitches and abbreviations and idiolectic word order juxtaposed with dignified, expansive vocabulary, and it is musical to listen to.  

The sound design itself is subtle and dignified, suggesting setting and time in the simplest possible ways. Gentle sea-waves merge into birdsong. Every so often, distant shell-fire shakes the room. The lights fade from bright white, to pink, to soft blue. The technology in Deuteronomy is lifelike in its ambience and gentleness, adding multitudes to the play and detracting nothing. The constant soft noise becomes comforting, too: there are a few significant moments of silence, and they are distressing and maddening; the lack of life, of nature, is unsettling. It – like the set – is expertly crafted to the needs of the play, which are few. The set consists merely of a few flats, a box, a coffin, all impactful in their sparseness.  

What is significant about Deuteronomy, too, is that it is a play about someone nearing the end of a journey, in a way that brings finality and completion. It is deeply satisfying as a meditation on mortality, striking a credible and moving balance between the fear of the unknown and the reassurance of a life well-lived. Named after the final book of the Pentateuch, it begins with the Beggar, the one who asks, searching for a verse in that book: though he gets to the very end, he does not find the knowledge he seeks. A moment of near-fatal tension, later, is dispelled by him realising that the verse may indeed be in Leviticus; he takes us back to the middle of things. The Man, on the other hand, has no time for the book, and does not seek knowledge or answers; for him, it is enough to know where he has been and what he has experienced along the way.  

This is Thurston’s answer to absurdism: in Deuteronomy, Godot arrives, and the journey and wait have been worth it. The play is both heavy and uplifting, but, as it draws to a close, at its core sings a song of innocence and hope – as the Man sings; “hurrah, my boys, for freedom, ‘tis the rising of the moon.” I will be back tomorrow, and the day after; because if I never see Deuteronomy again it will be the tragedy of my life.   

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