In the pre #metoo movement, the BDSM scene in New York began to discuss the sexual violence occurring in the community - primarily against women and submissives. Everyone knew the lead culprits but for a long time were unable or unwilling to say their names aloud, making excuses instead of championing consequences. Utilising the skeleton plot of Strindberg’s 1889 classic Miss Julie, Davies sculpts a world in which modern power dynamics of gender, sex and control undulate to represent this snapshot in time of BDSM culture and beyond.
Davies’s script is unflinching in detail and provocation. When Julie (Meaghan Martin) meets John (Oli Higginson) in the kitchen of a New York BDSM party, he offers to be her guide as she navigates this new experience - “fresh meat” need to be careful after all. Over a real-time 70 minutes, the pair share their past exploits all whilst grasping to find each other’s sexual boundaries, somewhat nervous to say anything too abruptly and risk scaring the other away. Circumstances and history cause the power to shift between them but for the most part, Higginson's John is the one leading the way.
For a production such as this, it is essential that two compatible actors are cast, in this case, that was not a particular concern as off-stage Martin and Higginson are married, adding to the crackling chemistry on stage - though still employing expert intimacy coordination from Asha Jennings-Grant. As a pair they prowl the small space with rapid dialogue and fierce rapport, they grow the tension to breaking point whilst skilfully bringing the entire audience along for the ride.
For the most part, Higginson is cooly confident as John, the older and further experienced in BDSM culture, though the cracks quietly form as his control is increasingly weakened. As Julie, Martin is headstrong yet uncertain, persistently answering “I don’t know” to John’s questions. With his support, her self-assurance develops, willing the evening to go where she desires it.
Sami Fendall’s design is simple yet so thrillingly ingenious. Black sand and charcoal cover the floor, forming a tactile surface for the actors to caress and tread. The sand increasingly spreading over their clothing and skin, leaving a trail of marks where they have been touched - simulating the intimacy further. Co-direction from Júlia Levai and Polina Kalinina is precise and intelligent when using limited space. They work well to mimic the visceral moments, ensuring that detail and intention are not lost despite moments where the actors exist on opposite sides of the stage. The direction manoeuvres the sexually-charged tension to be effective in keeping audiences on the edge of their seat, unwillingly to miss a single beat of Davies’s wickedly good script.
This production is a visceral insight into themes of consent, assault and power, layered effectively through a setting rarely risked shown on a stage. Though the BDSM world is fairly unknown to most it retains a universal relatability, no matter your personal preferences behind closed doors. SMOKE is flirtatious, funny and twisted, with sand forming the ash of the cigarettes the two participants share. This play could lose focus as the sexual nature intensifies but an inventive and wise creative team have crafted careful and safe ways to tell the story without the drama being compromised. A resounding success.
It runs until 25 February.
Review: Henry Lonmgstaff Photo: Lucy Hayes