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Love, Question Mark

Written and directed by Robert Gillespie
First performed at the New Diorama Theatre April 6th to 1st May 2010, produced by Lucy Jackson
Performed at The Old Sorting Office, Barnes October 20th to October 23rd 2010
Performed at The Courtyard 18-22 October 2011 & at The Tabard Theatre 8-23 November 2011
Michael: Stuart Sessions
Maria: Clare Cameron

“The only difference between prostitution and those who sell themselves into marriage, is in the price and length of the contract.” So said Simone de Beauvoir.

Michael Smith, retired widower, is looking forward to his daily crossword, the occasional trip to the library, pleasant meetings with old colleagues until there comes a day when he is shaken to his foundations by a happening – a vision – on a bus. Just a pair of legs, flashing as they descend the stair. He is driven to act, but at his time of life the only solution is risky, unconventional, even dangerous. Disturbed and anxious, he’s waiting for the outcome of an impulse. Perhaps sticking a pin in a list to find a partner is not such a crazy idea? Then there’s a knock at the door…

James Joyce, in a letter to his brother Stanislaus, wrote “I am nauseated by lying drivel about pure men and pure women and spiritual love for ever and ever.”

Michael seems like a nice, respectable enough middle-aged man. Buttoned up neatly in cardigan and tie, he comes across like an easy-going headteacher or a benign maths lecturer, and he is lecturing us, in a way, on a particular collection of formulae: those which equal love, or our ideas of love. He has become, as he airily puts it, a student of this subject. But, as well as taking us through a huge range of examples of society’s various attitudes to this most mercurial subject, he’s also re-playing for us his own personal adventure or, perhaps you might say, experiment in the field.
…Eventually, he buys a prostitute from a developing country, to come and live with him and give him sex on demand. Excuse me? you might well say. But this is not a drama about sex trafficking; Gillespie is not nearly as interested in the socio-political implications of the situation as he is in the comic human drama that plays out between the two of them once she is installed. And I think this is valid; though there are echoes of the suspect Pretty Woman story…
The main premise of the show is that we have been duped – into believing in monogamy and in the possibility of love being a sort of heaven on earth. Michael takes us through representations of love throughout history, pouring scorn on the language of high-flown Victorian romance, exploring what other cultures have considered an alternative “normal”. There are some choice pieces quoted, such as Darwin’s manic scribbled notes on the pros and cons of marriage – loss of freedom, loss of time to work, versus “a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps”.
Maria meanwhile candidly recounts stories of her clients, including some shocking things done to her and her fellow prostitutes. The point is not to persuade us to hate men, but, she argues, to recognise that it is not only a particular breed of man that makes use of her profession… What does that mean for our belief in monogamous love?
The show just avoids actually leaping to that conclusion, by keeping the debate fresh and lively, and simply presenting possibilities, in a frank and funny fashion.
…We watch as Michael and Maria’s relationship develops: the safer she starts to feel, the naughtier she becomes, until they are engaged in a cycle of sadomasochistic game-playing. But he still won’t let her leave the house, and she points out how much it resembles conventional relationships: she desires freedom from his suffocating mistrust, he worries that that very desire will lead her to walk out and never come back.
…They are starting to like each other, and he can’t necessarily maintain his cynicism forever.
The episodic nature of the show works well: it’s fast-paced and very funny, with any number of unusual developments (mostly to do with their sexual games) suddenly thrown our way.
Of course, the piece is highly stylised… the problem is that once we have started to believe in Maria as a character and to care about her story, we… pine for a bit more realism. At the end, when a sort of happy ending restores Maria with her loved ones and forces a sort of conventionality on Michael, it’s used… as a means for his arguments to be defeated, and to allow a comedy sequence where he mock-attempts to kill himself with kitchen utensils in protest.
The metatheatrical lecture element of the show does lead to many interesting moments; one in particular, where you get the impression that the two of them are on the road together with this their show about love… Are they merely actors. Is this their own story they’re telling? If it is, where is their relationship at now? But over-all it’s a sharp and witty show, deftly directed by Gillespie who keeps the pace up and keeps our interest admirably, and wonderfully performed by Stuart Sessions and Clare Cameron. It challenges us to be curious about our ideas of love, and to look for our own truth.
Corinne Salisbury, British Theatre Guide NEW DIORAMA April/May 2010
Maria wins our sympathy as she tells her story: lots of men, lots of sex, lots of brutality – but no love. She thought she’d come close to it once but even that let her down. And so (she and Michael) spar with each other bringing the audience in at times, with plenty of sharp one-liners, literary quotes, and a hilarious take on the hypocrisy of the church and state.
Is what (Michael) feels an emotional or hormonal reaction and does it matter? In all this confusion and self-doubt who can blame him if he feels nostalgic for his stamp collection?
His self-deprecation and forays into the chemical workings of the brain and their role in sexual arousal are very funny. But it’s far from being a comedy. The humour is laced with deep sadness, tragedy and downright nastiness. Sometimes you’re left with a sense of unease because some of the humour is very dark and I felt embarrassed for laughing at it myself. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an emotional roller coaster, but it does make you jump.
Penny Flood, Chiswick W4
By the end of the play, we learn enough about each character to know they are the opposite of what one would perceive them to be. The previously monogamous Michael yearns to play the field, while the prostitute longs to settle down in a monogamous relationship.
As a character, Michael appears somewhat detached from himself… after 38 years of marriage, which he confesses left him numb. Sessions plays this part brilliantly and thoroughly convincingly, but the character lacks likeability and it took a long time to really understand where he is coming from. I walked away still feeling he came across as desperate and I found it difficult to develop any real sense of empathy with him. …
The sultry and streetwise Maria (Clare Cameron), on the other hand, I warmed to instantly. After being raped at the age of 7, she has been selling sex ever since, and she intersperses the story with tales of her background; the abuse, the clients and her biggest regret – losing the man she loved and her children in favour of a pay-off. Despite some shocking tales of abuse, Maria doesn’t hate men; rather, she accepts that she “had something that men wanted” – namely that she would give them a good time, but not become a burden. “Men don’t pay you for sex. They pay you to go away afterwards.”
I left the Tabard feeling a little confused, but the play has grown on me over the journey home and certainly offers the audience plenty of food for thought on love, monogamy and whether bringing our fantasies into real life is really a good idea. It certainly challenges some of my own perceptions on these issues, and I would wager it will do the same to anyone who sees it.
Robin Foreman-Quercus, backstagepass
Michael probably sailed through ‘middle age’ with his wife. But she’s long gone and ‘elderly’ is fast approaching, so he orders a surprise package for himself to ahem, enjoy. The package, however, poses more of a challenge than Michael expects. It’s through his protagonist’s seemingly specific issues that writer Robert Gillespie has cleverly penned a contemplative piece that throws up resounding, trans-generational issues about relationships and loneliness.
The sheer variety of perspectives on what we call ‘love’ and the energetic but exasperated way in which they are philosophised and reasoned pulls the audience into an unsettling, unapologetic investigation into all our characters, our most basic needs and our most extraordinary fantasies…
Wave goodbye to the fourth wall as you enter and be ready to be addressed by a man you can’t quite make sense of. Michael is endearing but he’s come to terms with the power his sexual desires have over him and, in doing so, has become desperate, unashamed and a little too matter-of-fact. Played to perturb and charm his audience by Stuart Sessions, Michael is the voice for Gillespie’s gripes with the hypocrisy of public perception and definitions of ‘happiness’ and the willing self-delusion that fuels it all…
Michael grapples with the science of an erection and the Biblical guilt of it all. The constant aspiring to blissful monogamy is his main gripe. At times, the spewing of his back and forth could almost be part of a stand-up routine. He looks to the animal word for sense, and is allured by the practicality of sex for sale: a realm where man’s needs and man’s lies are acknowledged and accepted.
Love, Question Mark is a brilliant piece with which to open the New Diorama Theatre. Robert Gillespie’s writing is both sharp and ponderous and certainly stays with you. The show also features a stand-out performance by Clare Cameron whose depiction of a woman sold into the sex trade is edifying and perplexing in equal measure. And she has a voice like a lark to boot.
Naima Khan, Spoonfed 13 April, 2010
Love, Question Mark is a difficult piece. I would be lying to say if I understood everything…
…For anyone who is unable to hold on for the whirlwind ride of the script, there is thankfully an outstanding performance from Clare Cameron as Maria – the saucy yet oddly down to earth woman who Michael (Stuart Sessions) has brought over to be his new lover. She commands the stage in every shape possible and tackles the script with such vigour that she borders on tearing it apart.
Whilst we are thrown from situation to ever more complicated situation, Gillespie’s Love, Question Mark is an enjoyable piece… at times the piece falls into somewhat of a farce, leaving the audience room for laughter and joy to be taken from the ever-changing script.
(But…) Compared with the all singing, all dancing productions doing the rounds in the West End, a night of theatre of thought is greatly appreciated, and even if the script needs taming, it does make for an enjoyable experience in a theatre that holds much promise for the future.
Jake Orr, A Younger Theatre New Diorama Theatre until 1st May 2010
There is a brand new 80 seat theatre in London’s Euston/Kings Cross area which will give London another fringe venue for incoming productions. The New Diorama Theatre on the ground floor of a new leisure and restaurant block, replaces a previous Diorama which got in the way of property development. The first show from Nightwork Productions is an analysis of love and sex. Written and directed by Robert Gillespie, Love, Question Mark is a lively two hander on one man’s search for companionship and sex after the death of his wife.
…The mechanism of finding Maria, a dark-skinned beauty who frowning, looks angry – or it might be puzzled – as she struggles to grasp the meaning of Michael’s words. The most interesting aspect of this production is the description of Maria’s harrowing life — one of many children, raped as a child and then sold to a man as a sex slave. She lives later as a prostitute.
Stuart Sessions in his beige sweater looks not unlike the young Richard Briers and has the same kind of diffident and apologetic manner. Clare Cameron seethes and sizzles as the tempestuous Maria. As they discuss their experience of sex and erotic literature there are interludes of violent sub-dom games with Maria in charge.
We watch the marital drama unfold as Maria tries to break free from Michael and he is nervous of allowing this independent spirit out on her own. There is a resolution which is unexpected and I shall not reveal.
Mamoru Iriguchi and Polly Bennett’s simple design is a screen with black with red flowers and a couple of chairs. Later Maria wears a frock in the same strong red and black print.
Lizzie Loveridge, CurtainUp, The Internet Theatre Magazine
There are things to like about this comedy from writer/director Robert Gillespie, not least a fine central turn from Stuart Sessions as Michael Smith, an elderly widower who decides to satisfy his physical needs by purchasing a mail-order bride.
The set-up is strong: the loquacious Michael is a twinkly eyed, unworldly academic type who regales us with a mirthful discourse on monogamy in the animal kingdom that turns out to be an elaborate justification for buying.
When his imported Argentinian arrives, there is promise in the initial clash between Michael’s hyper-intellectual naivety and the awful realities experienced by Maria, who lost her virginity to a rapist and has been trapped in the sex industry ever since.
Yet ultimately the play’s sexual politics come across as unforgivably callous, mostly because it ducks every issue about rape, trafficking and prostitution it raises with a risible postmodern cop-out ending. Sessions’s oddball charisma and excellent comic timing cover a multitude of sins. But ultimately this leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
Posted by a Politically correct (and possibly tight-arsed) Time Out person on Monday November 14 2011
Gillespie’s new play challenges us to think outside the box. The writing, which teeters into black comedy, is witty, acerbic, with lots of brilliant one-liners.
Carol Evans, ThePublicReviews