Tuesdays at Tesco’s starring Simon Callow is a lesson in the unspoken and spoken, the silence of self-hatred and the primal scream of sustained heartbreak. The production is like a tragic duel and never-ending circular dance of sadness, pain and unforgivingness between daughter Pauline and father Andy.
It is a dance that Callow adroitly crafts in a solo performance playing the role of transgender Pauline who, with gravelly, sandpaper voice, poignantly characterizes her father’s acerbic, bitter response to her sexuality. Speaking as Andy, Callow drips annoyance and hatred as he reveals how Andy pines for the good old days when Pauline was his son Paul and all in Andy’s small universe aligned with the straight and narrow.
Emmanuel Darley’s play, directed by Simon Stokes currently at 59E59 Theaters, has been translated into English by Sarah Vermande and Matthew Hurt. In the hands of Callow’s lithe and expert acting the production is a tour de force about unrequited parental love and acceptance, the desolation of rejection and the hopelessness of living out an identity one has chosen for oneself without a total commitment to one’s own self-love and acceptance.
The set, shepherded by the director’s vision, and the musical accompaniment (composed and played by Conor Mitchell) are nothing short of ingenious. Both the minimalist set and the music are symbolic, each suggesting the alienation and disjointed relationship between the daughter and father. The set especially evokes the repetitive, nullifying, emotionally cruel behaviors and reactions between the two. The result is circularity: a hopeless betrayal and self-betrayal both father and daughter experience and cannot seem to end.
The set is a thinly constructed geometric form in the shape of an oval which encircles the playing area. It suggests the restrictions of Pauline’s space in her relationship with her father and within the culture; she can only go so far, only do so much. The oval structure confines and defines the extent of her physical mobility and interpretively reveals the extent to which Pauline is confined by the identity her father and the culture impose upon her inner self/soul.
Within this oval, Pauline moves and has her being, never exceeding its parameters. Also within this structure is a solitary tree branch bare of leaves; it is also suspended in the framed circumference. Upon the branch hangs a fuscia-pink velvet dress, something which Pauline might consider lovely as it recalls the allure of a dress one might wear on a fun night out on the town. It is an ironic prop for fun is the antithesis of the emotionally soul wrenching Tuesdays Pauline spends with her father.
On the floor of the stage, there are black “rocks” that circle the playing area. These parallel the path of the oval structure suspended above. The interpretation of the stones/rocks suggest many themes (punishing by stoning, Jesus’ adjuration to the Pharisees ready to kill an adultress-“let he who is without sin cast the first stone”). It also is reflective of the metaphor Shakespeare labels the crowd in Julius Caesar. One of the characters refers to the commoners as “blocks and stones” (senseless, unseeing). This certainly pertains to father Andy as he ignores Pauline’s sexuality: he is senseless of it.
Within this oval structure Pauline confides to us as best she can, sometimes in fractured sentences, the emotional trauma and disembodied history of her life as Paul/Pauline. We discover that in the past until she left home, she allowed others to define her as masculine, knowing in her soul that she was the feminine Pauline. As she discusses her visits to her father on Tuesdays to clean up the house, cook, wash and take care of him these last months since her mother passed away, we feel her intense anxiety and unhappiness returning to her old home town and the house where she grew up as Paul. She discloses how Andy negates her being; she relates his cruelties, for example asking what his son Paul is doing dressed “like that.” Callow is magnificent in conveying the agonizing dualities between father and daughter: Andy’s disgust with his son, and Pauline’s love and patience to be accepted by her father. Callow also evokes the finality of Andy’s anger; he will never return Pauline’s love and acceptance as long as she is Pauline.
Callow’s portrayal of Pauline’s layered heartbreak, self-loathing and self-denial (she keeps going back to “care” for her father despite the egregious torment of each visit), is superb and profoundly understood. Callow’s brief iterations of Andy’s stubborn truculence and anger at Pauline are tragic and loathsome. We believe the truth of Callow’s Pauline and how she relates and filters Andy’s hatred of her. Pauline is the “bigger” person, ever forgiving, kind and considerate yet firm in attempting to assert her femininity with her father. Callow convinces us that as needy as Pauline is for her father’s love and respect, Andy is as self-righteous, angry and emotionally cold in refusing to love Pauline back. By the end of the play we understand that Andy’s world is too narrow to encompass the likes of Pauline. Andy is incapable of breaking the cycle of demeaning emotional abuse he repeats every Tuesday when Pauline comes to set up the house for him and then goes shopping with him at Tesco’s.
All elements of this production combine in the director’s vision and Callow’s portrayal to brilliantly focus on this seminal revelation. Andy prefers to lock his son Paul in the cage of memory in a prison that excludes Pauline whom Andy wishes to destroy or at best consign to invisibility. This focus helps us understand the abrupt ending of the play and is no more evident than when Pauline tells us Andy walks ahead of her in Tesco’s to avoid neighbors recognizing Paul has become Pauline. Thus, we understand that Andy is ashamed and embarrassed to have such a son. This self-hatred is Andy’s tragedy. As Andy locks out Pauline, the one who becomes imprisoned by memory is Andy. As long as he is in this prison seeing only Paul, he will never be able to acknowledge Pauline’s love, kindness and concern for him. Thus, even though Pauline is there each Tuesday taking care of her father, Andy doesn’t speak to her, recognize or accept her love. Andy dispenses with her, obliterates her. In despising Pauline, he despises himself. Pauline knows this and by the play’s conclusion, we discover whether Pauline has internalized this and has been overcome by it or has moved on to overthrow the guilt of Andy’s hatred by embracing herself in love and self-acceptance.
During Pauline’s “dialogue” with us, the silent listeners to whom she confides her soul wreckage, her sarcasm and her fury (Callow is often humorous – the sad clown), there is Conor Michell’s appropriate and effusive piano accompaniment. This scores Pauline’s notes of sorrow, irony, triumph, humor. The music is at times as hollow and discordant as a fading echo. At other times it is melodic and purposeful, dependent upon Pauline’s particular commentary. For example the music is purposeful as it reinforces Pauline’s confidence standing up to her father. “I’m Pauline, your daughter,” she says. With confidence Pauline struts and prances and tap dances as if to smash down Andy’s attempts to imprison her in the identity of “Paul.”
In other segments of Pauline’s confidential talk, the music breaks off into discordance and what sounds like unconnected riffing without an intentional, clear rhythm. Such is the pattern of what is happening between father and daughter as they strive against each other. A fine directorial touch is that before Callow comes on as Pauline, Mitchell sets up a metronome ticking out the time. Is this to suggest that that which we most ignore in our lives is what we should be particularly mindful of as it runs out quickly, the hours into a day like a Tuesday at Tesco’s supermarket, a year, a life? Or is this just setting the metronome? Some of the best of this visionary production is in its opaqueness, its openness to interpretation.
Callow’s performance in Tuesdays at Tesco’s is the actor’s profound masterwork. His empathy in conveying both characters as authentic beings is truly staggering. With Callow’s rendering and the director’s canny brushstrokes, we see that no one is at fault. No one should cast a stone. Yet both characters do, for in relating her father’s treatment of her, Pauline is casting a boulder at Andy. This is life’s tragedy. But it is humorously ironic because rich or poor, we all do it. Tuesdays at Tesco’s is a coherent production that reminds us of ourselves. It shouldn’t be missed.
It runs at 59E59 Theaters until June 7.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1848422253][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1848420544][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0231157134]