Ava Wong Davies’ Graceland takes up space without shouting

Ava Wong Davies’ Graceland at the Royal Court Theatre takes up space without shouting. Tracing a relationship from giddy love-at-first-sight through to its slow unravelling, this production, directed by Anna Himali Howard with Izzy Rabey, elicits strong reactions from the audience – gasps, choked laughter, murmurs of discomfort.

It’s partly the intimacy of the staging – a single bed on an otherwise bare platform is surrounded by dirt, there’s a light overhead which mimics, at turns, a skylight, a sunset, a rainstorm. Then there’s Davies’ text – rejecting easy, black-and-white narratives of abuse and dysfunction for an exacting, careful cataloguing of a relationship caving inwards.  

Graceland Production - Ali Wright-39Sabrina Wu by Ali Wright

We are drawn into Nina’s world immediately, as she enters and takes us into her small bedroom. Throughout the play, Nina’s monologue travels through a series of locations, many of them bedrooms: her childhood room, her first flat, her boyfriend’s bedroom, her boyfriend’s childhood bedroom, her best friend’s bedroom. The bedroom, as a space, contains sex, intimacy, sleep – but it’s also a space for reflection. The way Nina walks on stage, slamming the door – and the rest of the world – behind her, reminds us that the bedroom is above all a place where we can be alone with – and haunted by – our thoughts and memories. 

The story begins sweet and messy. Nina recalls meeting Gabriel at a barbecue with ketchup dribbling down her elbow. What follows is a short period of cat-and-mouse games, giving way at last to the narrative of a relationship which slowly begins to hint at something darker and scarier than that first, perfect, imperfect encounter.

As she speaks, Sabrina Wu paces around the stage, alternating stillness and frenetic, anxious movement, her clothes and hands getting dirtier and dirtier as she feels, touches, and falls to her knees on the mounds of earth surrounding the stage. 

Graceland Production - Ali Wright-62Sabrina Wu by Ali Wright

As Nina, Wu is captivating, at turns shimmering with anger, grief, and joy as she speaks Davies’ text to life. Davies is interested in the entire spectrum of feeling which emerges from a complicated relationship, and while a monologue can often be a cramped, solipsistic space in which to tell a story, Wu is never overbearing.

Though she rarely raises her voice to a shout, Wu moves naturally between fragility and strength and back again. This isn’t a narrative about victimhood – the play is interested in stories which are difficult to tell, which don’t always align perfectly with the words we might use to describe a relationship gone wrong. 

Throughout the 75-minute performance, momentum builds and occasionally falters. Often, the build-up in Nina’s story to outbursts of violence or abuse works extremely well, creating a sense of mounting unease – you can almost feel the punchline before it arrives.

At one point, Nina recalls having sex with Gabriel in his childhood bedroom, and as she tells the story, the tension creeps higher and higher as she notes the way she feels disconnected from him and outside of her body. It’s clear that something is about to happen, and when the climax of that particular vignette finally arrives, it’s almost a relief to have words to explain that building tension. 

At other times, particularly towards the end – the final part of the monologue has Nina going over the same dinner party over and over with different versions of events – the pace and focus wavers. It’s hard to sustain a monologue – particularly one which is ultimately more focused on language and storytelling than action or dynamism.

Graceland Production - Ali Wright-57Sabrina Wu by Ali Wright

However, the focus returns in the real climax of the play, which comes when the heavens open – literally – at the end of the dinner party sequence. Nina stands beneath a deluge of water for a long time, the dirt washing off her body and her clothes. It’s not a complicated metaphor – the feeling of finally being clean after being streaked for so long with the filth of an increasingly toxic relationship – but it works, and it works well. 

At one point, Gabriel gives Nina a version of events which is different from the one she recalls. In retelling that moment, she wishes she had responded: “I remember. I was there too.” It might be easy to read Graceland as a straightforward text exploring topical issues – gaslighting, or coercive control, or financial abuse. But ultimately, by dwelling in the specifics of a unique relationship, this is a play about narrative, memory, and voice – and the power which these things allow us to reclaim. 

by Ismene Ormonde 

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