Salt Root and Roe.
By Tim Price
Cast: Betsan Llwyd, Sara Harris-Davies, Brendan Charleson, Catrin Aaron.
Director: Kate Wasserberg.
Tim Price’s latest play is like a pebble picked from a Pembrokeshire beach. It’s something to take home and reflect over, something that evokes a smell of the sea. This is a play which explores the concepts of assisted suicide and of being reconciled to death. But if that sounds heavy going, it’s not. Salt, Root and Roe floats in a space between the sky and the sea reflecting the ambiguity of what life and living is all about.
Price’s inspiration for the play came from his earlier journalist career, when two elderly twins committed suicide by tying themselves together and walking into the sea. By taking elements of the true story, Price has created a tale of two elderly identical twins thwarted from their suicide pact by a daughter. As Menna tries to reason with her mother and aunt she gradually realises that life for either of them without the other, would not be a life worth living and that her own peace depends on letting them go.
It’s a strong script for mature actors and unusually, mature women. Betsan Llwyd and Sara Harris-Davies are convincing as identical twins, despite their different height and build. They eat, sleep and breathe in unison, underlying the impression that they are two halves of the whole; neither can survive without the other. Menna, Anest’s daughter, played by Catrin Aaron, can’t bear to let either of them go. When she realises that it’s her own mother who wants to die with her terminally ill twin, we feel the pain of her maternal rejection. It seems unimaginable that a mother should prefer to leave behind her only child in order to die with her own sister, yet we see that the twins’ identities are totally bound in each other. It’s a plausible concept and Price conveys it credibly. Brendan Charleson as the local policeman provides discrete emotional support, despite being locked in his own disintegrating marriage. Ironically, he introduces a note of hope in this beautiful but slow moving examination of the emotions surrounding assisted suicide.
Price infuses the play with a strong Welsh identity and location, setting the play on the north Pembrokeshire coast. This is a bilingual play; the twin sisters communicate together in welsh, yet the bilingualism is handled with a light touch. That the play enjoyed a successful run at London’s Trafalgar Studios is evidence that the bilingualism is without detriment to the universality of the play’s appeal. Welsh is used to reinforce the exclusion that Menna feels from Anest and Iola. She rebukes them ‘don’t start on the Welsh’, when they lapse into what seems to be their private twin language. Llwyd and Harris-Davies give a superb performance as the increasingly self-absorbed elderly sisters and Aaron’s anguish as she witnesses their disintegration is palpable.
Designer Ruth Hall has used the hard slate grey beachscape of the north Pembrokeshire coast as an influence in developing the set. A grey refracted light creates an ambiguous space that shifts between land, underwater and sky, emphasising the ambiguity of life. Hall somehow manages to make two different actors look like identical by using striking red overcoats. Initially is makes them look like two jolly garden gnomes, but as the play progresses, it gives an abstract feel to the underwater scenes in which the twins recite poetry.
The script feels lean in a positive sense, and Price shows subtlety in developing each character as the play progresses. In particular, Menna’s slow journey from trying to save the twins to her complicity in their suicide is haunting. The play feels well structured in an understated way; from the unexpected revelations which send the audience into an unanticipated trajectory, to the careful variation of pace between the dream-like poetic recitations by the twins and the frantic energy of Menna, desperate to save them. This is a beautifully written play which lingers in the mind. It confronts the notion that the correct thing to do is not necessarily the kindest or the most loving. Price takes an unspeakable concept and plants it firmly in our consciousness where it floats like the memories evoked by that pebble plucked from the beach.