Underneath is the final of three Pat Kinevane plays to be performed at the Tron Theatre this week, after Forgotten and the Olivier award-winning Silent. Kinevane is both writer and performer and emerges here from darkness to crawl onto a light-dappled platform like a spider or a cat. The audience is captured immediately and an otherworldly atmosphere is created through sound, colour and Kinevane’s transfixing movements. It’s quickly clear that Underneath is going to be unique.
What becomes unsettlingly apparent is that we are in a subterranean tomb, and that our narrator is a decomposing corpse, eerily rendered in thick black makeup and disintegrating clothes. In life she was a woman disfigured by a freak-of-nature childhood accident and ridiculed thereafter. In death, she is, ironically, less alone, unravelling her story and dishing out her wisdom for the audience who she is glad to be communing with for the evening. The confessional narrative is carefully threaded together and evokes our sympathy, laughter and shame as we hear how this scarred girl has faced prejudice and discrimination everywhere except in her grave. However, Underneath‘s success is undoubtedly underpinned by Kinevane’s versatile performance. At times his voice is warm and he pulls us in with smiles, song and black humour, only to then shock us with yells of torture and painful cries. His physicality is both natural and skilfully choreographed as he traverses his tomb with graceful movement and thrusts himself alarmingly close to the front row at points, even interacting with various audience members to strengthen our connection.
Even the props are fascinating, for everything not nailed to the stage is gold: an allusion to the burial rituals of the ancient Egyptians, sending remnants from earthly life onto the next plane. Of particular note are the huge gold lamé banners hanging from ceiling to floor and the shining wire helmet used to represent the cowardly Jasper — a Judas-like figure central to the plot. Lighting effects also help transform the mood of each scene, sometimes through simple spotlamps or ribbons of light that Kinevane floats in and out of. Audio, too, is essential, as voice recordings and screeching synths cleverly create a sinister soundscape of the afterlife.
Although directed tightly, Kinevane occasionally seems to go off-script, particularly in his audience interactions. Although this adds a sense of realism and closeness with the protagonist, for some it might feel untethered or shaky. The 100-minute running time without interval also threatens to break the focus. However, these are minor concerns. The play works as an aesthetic and aural marvel as well as an exploration of beauty, cruelty and isolation. The title is, of course, ambiguous: a reference not only to the character’s resting place, but to what is really important (and threatening) about all of us, beneath our exteriors. The beautiful juxtaposition here, is that although Kinevane basks in darkness on stage, Underneath illuminates and enlightens.