CW: abusive relationship, mental health

With One Eye Open: Shostakovich and Other Insomniacs is a new play written and co-directed by Samuel Woof McColl, which “explores the things that go on in the middle of the night (in just 75 minutes!)”. Light piano music was playing in the background as I walked into the Michael Pilch Studio, and the set (designed by Kitty Foster) was simple, but effective – a double bed centre stage with purple drapes behind it and an ornate carpet downstage. The play tells the stories of four people who are all unable to get to sleep for different reasons: relationship troubles, haunting nightmares, despair at the state of the world, and a hatred of conformity. Though the play featured some very strong performances, seamless transitions between scenes, and effectively choreographed physical theatre, I couldn’t help but feel that the deliberate lack of resolution was unsatisfying. I was distracted for most of the play trying to see how the individual plots fit together as a whole, only to find that they did not.

Rose Morley and Lara Deering as fledgling lesbian couple Nic and Jane were struggling with the fact that they were unable to sleep in the same bed – Nic could not stop turning in bed, and Jane snored too loudly. Their chemistry was very endearing to watch, especially in their final scene together, legs thrown carelessly around waists as they cuddled, sharing a tender moment… until Jane pronounced that it was simply too uncomfortable to sleep that way. Deering must also be commended for her graceful physical theatre transitions, which really grabbed my attention between scenes.

Martha West as a neurotic, agitated Jeanine was plagued by her prophetic dreams, and her paranoia results in her husband Jackson, sympathetically portrayed by Alex Fleming-Brown, having to console her. West had a commanding presence on stage, her highly strung personality evident in the constant wringing of her hands and sharp, sudden movements, but I was unsure what her character arc was meant to represent. It is implied in her monologue that she feels she is being trapped and gaslit in an abusive relationship. She says “He cradled me for so long I forgot to stand by myself. That’s love. Total dependence”, but her interactions with her husband never quite shed light on the reality of things, and the plot line never quite resolved itself. This left me more than a little confused and – pardon the pun – left in the dark. This, it was revealed, was a deliberate move by the playwright McColl, who explained to me after the performance that the relationship was meant to be fairly unclear, so that the audience could draw their own conclusions about the relationship and whether Jeanine was actually losing her mind or if there was some truth to her dreams.

Connor Johnston delivered a standout performance as Michael, who is deeply disturbed by the terrible news he reads about on social media. His speeches were simultaneously comedic yet moving – I laughed out loud at the line, “Seriously sleep-deprived isn’t a good look, unless you’re Robert Pattinson, apparently”, and his groans in bed while his phone dinged multiple times were nothing short of hilarious. Michael idolises a news broadcaster named Helen (flawlessly played by an elegant and composed Martha Berkmann), who he claims tells the news as it is. He is quickly disillusioned, however, when Helen breaks out of her broadcast announcement to speak directly to him, destroying the pedestal he has put her upon and leading him to vow to “do something terrible” in order for her to notice him again. This was extremely confusing to watch on stage; it was unclear how Helen was communicating with Michael, whether this was all just a surreal dream, and what the point to be made was: was it a commentary on bias and sensationalism in the news, the pitfalls of a career in journalism, or how anyone can sleep at night while so many horrors are happening in the universe? Speaking to McColl, he explained, “Jeanine and Michael explore the boundaries between dream and reality (one developing an obsessive relationship with a news presenter, the other being forced to reassess their life following a dream), as well as loneliness as both characters are fundamentally isolated.”

Finally, Joe Stanton played the eponymous Shostakovich, and from what I gathered, his storyline appeared to be the central force of the play. His character is faced with a difficult choice: join the Communist Party, conform with society, and be safe under the watchful eye of Stalin, or disobey orders, pack his bags, and leave to face an uncertain future. Stanton’s last scene, the final scene of the play, was the strongest of all, featuring an excellently timed monologue that climaxed at the exact same time as the music, his voice ringing out over the swelling violins as he announced, “Stalin didn’t put the monsters under the bed. I did.” It was certainly a very satisfying ending, but did not quell the many questions that arose in my mind throughout.

I tried to find some connection between the characters apart from their shared insomnia; I was led to believe the play would lead to a Cloud Atlas style ending in which the plots all interlocked in some way as part of a bigger arc, especially given that the monologues were linked to each other in quick succession in the first half, the last line of one character quickly being followed by the next. By the second half, however, it was clear that much of the play was left too ambiguous for me to reach a conclusion. The episodic storylines might have worked well as stand-alone monologues, and the actors delivered them extremely well, but I would have very much liked to have seen more development of the characters and fuller explanations of their arcs. Another minor gripe was the lighting, which was effective in places (particularly in the scenes between Michael and Helen) but at other times did not illuminate enough of the stage to see clearly what was going on. I spoke to McColl after the play, who explained, “There has been a big trend in theatre to create neat structures, but I think one theme that defies that trend is sleep. I wanted to present disconnected individuals isolated in the night, rather than draw lines between them.” Therefore, my confusion was the point, and in that case the play achieved its aim by leaving its audience with a lot of unresolved questions. Nevertheless, the play is supported by a very strong cast who very much deserve to be lauded for their excellent performances of the script, and is therefore still worth watching.