Review by Thomas Gregory
Warning: Traps is a confronting play that deals with sexual assault, suicide, and the representation of domestic violence. It contains violence, nudity, smoke from fire, and flashing and strobing lights.
It is of little controversy to say that Caryl Churchill is one of, if not the, greatest playwrights in the English-speaking world. She brought theatre into the post-modern age with challenging topics and experimental forms and was a trailblazer in bringing women’s voices to the stage. It would be difficult to understand her importance to theatre history.
Traps is one of Churchill’s earlier stage plays, and it shows. It is far more accessible in its naturalism and far more explicit in how she envisioned the play to be produced. Still, it is confrontational in its content, experimental with its timeline, and puts relationship over narrative, just as her later works do. It is obscene without being gratuitous and unforgiving in its presentation.
Laurence Strangio’s production of Traps is an offering that is faithful to Churchill’s text, even when it may make staging difficult. Presented in the round, the audience is trapped by the experience that is happening inches from their eyes. It is not immersive; it is confronting.
The ensemble that Strangio has put together for his production is truly world-class. Some of the characters Churchill has put together could so easily be played as one-dimensional. However, from Leigh Scully’s paranoid Albert to Gabriel Partington's controlling Reginald, the actors bring out the complex motivations that lead to abusive behaviour. While Del's character is never shown the chance to be sympathetic in the text, it does not stop Dominic Westcott from producing a stellar performance. Scott Middleton’s Jack might honestly be believed to have supernatural abilities.
As one might expect from Churchill, this play is very much about the women in the story, their lack of agency, the pain they suffer, and how difficult it is to live the life they want.
Cait Spiker creates a picture of Christie nuanced; Churchill’s character explores just how difficult it can be to escape abuse, and the inner turmoil created by sustained manipulation. Spiker truly understands when it is appropriate to hold back and when to release the tension with large acts of emotional outpouring.
In some ways, the character of Syl is the hardest to capture. The abuse she faces is less overt, and the struggles of motherhood and its expectations could be difficult to explore in a text that so erratically moves between different worlds. Meg Spencer is a major asset for the audience, clearly indicating a change of world long before the text does with a change in posture or a different kind of smile.
The real strength of the cast, however, is how they work as an ensemble. “Traps” is an extremely intimate play for actors, filled with violence, sexual activity, and nudity. More importantly, there are integral moments in the play where the story is told in silence - a shared look, an unwanted touch. Strangio courageously lets the actors explore this silent place, and the audience reaps the rewards. The chemistry between Middleton and Spiker during these scenes is well worth mentioning, as they portray a sibling relationship far outside the bounds audiences expect.
Traps is a resource-heavy play in which set design and props play an integral role in story-telling. Mattea Davies, Evie Housham, and Ross Housham should all be praised for their roles in taking the small space that is La Mama and creating two unique homes for the characters. Clare Springett’s lighting design is nearly flawless in illuminating this change of space, and the use of the fireplace and overhead practicals adds to the naturalism Churchill was aiming for. The stage manager and backstage crew must have been run off their feet, especially in the play's final moments, and should be congratulated on such a smooth production run.
It is difficult to find a legitimate criticism of Traps. It is a play in which the best choice of the director is to be as faithful to the text as possible - Strangio has done this. It is a play that is filled with complex characters that could fail in the hands of the wrong actors, but this ensemble cast knocked it out of the park. While there were one or two lines one might argue were poorly examined, these could be outlying anomalies or simply the result of a reviewer unable to turn off their director’s brain. There is little concern that anyone might mistake the play for interactive, but with how intimate a play it is the warning can be appreciated.
There have been a few plays in the 2022 season at La Mama that would be called unmissable. Traps is most definitely one of them. It is extremely confronting, but the staff at La Mama have prepared resources to help anyone for whom the production is too much and do a wonderful job putting the welfare of their patrons first.