Today, when long-term playwright-director partnerships are rare, it is a cause for celebration when a writer and a director work together over several years. Playwright Simon Stephens, who has had a successful collaboration with director Marianne Elliott on his current adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but also on his 2008 Cottesloe play Harper Regan, now joins forces with her again to revive his 2002 play, Port, which Elliot originally directed.
Danny Kelly (Chris Bennett) and Kate O'Flynn (Racheal Keats) in Port at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
In 2002, the play’s unusually large cast of characters was staged by means of doubling. This time, the resources of the National have been used both to field a larger cast and to occupy a big stage. Given that the Monsterist group of new writers have been, for a number of years, arguing that contemporary plays should be given the same resources as classics, this is a good example of just what can be achieved when this project is taken seriously.
The play begins in Stockport, in 1988, and focuses on Racheal Keats, who starts off as a child and develops over the course of the evening into a 24-year-old. She comes from a very poor and deprived background, and her lack of good parenting is clear from the opening scene. Together with her brother Billy, she is ignored or abandoned by most of her family. And those that care soon die.
But while Billy becomes a young hooligan, Racheal - who is on stage for most of the evening - tries to live a good life. She has a strong sense of justice, an attractively spunky character, and a remarkable openness to experience. She is unsentimental, tough, occasionally full of wonder and sometimes humorous. She admits her mistakes and often tells the truth.
The plot, which has an epic if episodic scope which is reminiscent of Edward Bond’s Saved, runs through some of the milestones of a life lived in urban deprivation - the parents argue violently, grandfather dies, Billy starts stealing; there’s teenage sex, young love, marital beatings. There’s a depressing predictability about the hard conditions of this impoverished working-class existence.
Yet Port is a play of vivid contrasts. For every dark insight there is a moment of lightness, whether of humour or hope. Although there are instances of excruciating pain, there are also moments of great tenderness, such as when Rachael extracts a displaced contact lens from her boyfriend Danny’s eye.
Certainly, Stephens writes with great control and while the text may be spattered with terrors, it also has its passages of great beauty and perception. If the main characters are full of a sense of loss, they are also resilient in the face of anything that poverty might throw at them. And that gradually grounds the play in humanity.
On the Lyttelton’s huge stage Elliott’s production occasionally struggles to find a good fit, at least in the opening scenes. Yet her actors are thoroughly convincing, especially Kate O’Flynn as Racheal, a character who survives a bruising youth to emerge strong at the end. She is well supported by Mike Noble as Billy, Calum Callaghan as Danny, and Liz White and Jack Deam as her mum and dad. Port is a contemporary classic.