In Neil LaBute’s play, The Mercy Seat, two adulterous lovers are faced with a life-changing choice in the wake of a terrorist attack that leaves thousands dead. We talk to Hermione Gehle, director of last year’s Fringe World production of Fat Pig (also by LaBute), about this latest thorny bundle of misanthropy and hard questions.
Tell us about the play.
The play is really about a couple, what they want from each other and how they plan for the future. Of course, all of this takes part the day after a catastrophic event that has left thousands dead or missing in the city – so there’s constant images on television about the rescue efforts, acts of heroism and the pure tragedy of it all.
All of that’s outside – the greater context, which we’ve seen time and time again in stories of adversity where we always cast ourselves as the heroes. But inside our story, there’s this really, almost essentially human question: how do I make this work for me? And that kind of opportunism happens all the time, like when companies sell bottled water to tsunami victims. But when we try and act on that at the personal level, move from impulse to action, that’s when we really break taboo. But only if we get caught.
What was it that attracted you to The Mercy Seat as a text?
For starters, LaBute is just a fantastic writer with a brutally honest eye – great dialogue that seems natural while it pushes realism into satire. In many ways, LaBute is fearless when it comes to saying, “Y’know, we’re not as great as we say we are.” Some of the best lines in the play are funny because the characters don’t realise they’re being funny – that takes real skill as a writer.
What prompted the decision to change the setting of the play (originally New York City on 9/11) and what did you have to take into consideration in order to effect that change?
I believe satire works best when it’s directly relatable to the audience. If we hadn’t updated time and place to something specific to us, it becomes “that 9/11 play” instead of a play about who we are. I’ve been really fortunate to work with Scott Vincent, who’s digitally created a range of amazing footage of the catastrophe taking place in Perth, which makes it feel real and relevant to us, the audience. As far as the themes of The Mercy Seat go, I think we’ve all learnt to live in a state of near-fear, that whole “alert but not alarmed” thing, which is part of that story we tell ourselves – that we must be vigilant and that there are bad people that want to hurt us.
Also, I should mention that this is the first time LaBute has permitted anyone to adapt The Mercy Seat for a different time and place, so it’s a huge honour for us.
What are you hoping audiences take away from it?
I think it’s the nature of satire that you can’t direct what audiences will take away from a piece – you hope to entertain and challenge, you hope that all the levels of meaning get across. Perhaps this whole “good guy” mythology we have about ourselves gets in the way of really acknowledging who we are and what we might need to change, but that’s a huge question. But it’s a question theatre is ideally positioned to ask.
The Mercy Seat is on at The Blue Room Theatre as part of Fringe World until Saturday, February 7. Go to fringeworld.com.au for tickets and session times.