Monday, 21 July 2014

Review: 'Man in a Bag'

Polygraph Collective, Holden Street Theatres, 18 July-2 August 2014. Written by Emily Steel. Directed by Tiffany Lyndall-Knight and Ben Roberts.

Photo: Sofia Calado

On 23 August 2010, a policeman entered a top-floor flat in upmarket Pimlico, central London. He was there on a ‘welfare check’, the flat’s occupant, 32-year-old Gareth Williams, having not been heard from by his work colleagues for several days. There was no sign of trouble. In fact, on the contrary, the flat was immaculate; books smartly stacked, multiple iPhones and an Apple notebook neatly arranged on a table. By contrast, the scene in the bathroom mirrored something out of a horror film: in the bath was a sports bag locked from the outside and, within it, contorted so much that the policeman thought at first its arms and legs had been cut off, the decomposing body of Gareth Williams. How Williams – a brilliant though reclusive mathematician who, at the time of his death, was working for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) – had come to lose his life under such bizarre circumstances became the subject of multiple, inconclusive inquiries and, now, Man in a Bag, a new play by Emily Steel. It is yet another contribution to the thick fog of speculation which continues to surround the case.

During the course of Steel’s play we are introduced, largely through a succession of mono- and duologues, to characters both central and ancillary to Williams’ life: his garrulous landlady (Chrissie Page), two uniformed cops (Tiffany Lyndall-Knight and Lochlin Maybury), a possibly jilted shop assistant (Sara Lange), his grieving sister (Holly Myers) who cannot find closure. Each summons not only an alternative interpretation of Williams’ final days, but also a different version of the man himself, echoing the British media’s feverish conjecture as to the kind of person he was – closeted homosexual, workaholic public servant, sexual pervert, suicidal loner. Williams himself makes an appearance (Sam Calleja) and even he is not above a little rumour-making, running through multiple scenarios of his own death which take in girlfriend-impressing pranksterism, a fatally misconceived attempt to emulate Harry Houdini’s escapology, and a John le Carré-esque conspiracy that involves him being overwhelmed in his own flat by two enemy agents. Williams tells us, though, that this last theory is completely implausible and we are left, once again, with few facts, still adrift in a morass of unanswered questions.

It is no wonder that Steel felt drawn to this story whose, to quote Hanna Arendt, ‘possibilities are endless, unlimited by reason and unhampered by knowledge.’ Strange it is, then, that the play runs to a mere 55 minutes and ends up feeling shallow as a result, a work composed of flashing surfaces that always keeps the audience at arms-length, grimly intrigued by the emergent details but never sufficiently invested in their stakes. There are numerous, juicy aspects of the Williams case which are never considered in Man in a Bag; I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these Steel may have been able to work into a longer and, in all likelihood, more substantial play. As one example, it is never touched on that Williams’ work brought him into contact with Russian, Turkish and Chinese cyber crime gangs as well as Islamist terror groups and a host of potentially murderous lone criminals and extremists.

Unfortunate design decisions, as well as some tentative direction by Ben Roberts and Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, undercut what Steel is able to achieve despite the play’s brevity. The British canvas of the original events is swapped out for an indeterminate setting that, confusingly, includes SAPOL uniforms (costume designer Olivia Freear) and a combination of Australian and English accents. Steel’s script sticks too closely to the Williams story to make this globalised orientation work, and too much colour is drained from the production through the loss of the distinctively British details which fleck the real-life events on which the play is based – Harrods, MI6, even the familiar stiff upper lip/kinky duality of the British bureaucracy. There are other problems: the portable screens that comprise the set rustle distractingly every time they are moved (set designer Olivia Zanchetta), and Callan Fleming’s sound design is much too quiet throughout. There are, on the other hand, strong performances from the entire cast who appear to revel in the extended soloing that Steel’s monologue-heavy script enables.

The most recent inquest into Gareth Williams’ death, conducted by the Metropolitan Police, concluded late last year that the man in a bag had died alone and by accident. The verdict is sure to reenergise the conspiracy-minded who all along have been saying that a cover-up has taken place. I hope, too, that Steel has a fresh surge of inspiration in the near future, so that she might return to her treatment of this fascinating mystery and to find more flesh for its bones, and more space for its limbs to fully stretch out. There is, I feel sure, a very good play here – but it is still waiting to be let out of the bag.     

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