[The following contains spoilers.]
Quest Theaterworks are from California and they are presently showcasing Johnna Adams’ “Gidion’s Knot” at the Surgeons’ Hall. Both of the performers on stage, Lois Ewing and Trish Adair, wring every drop of juice out of this play, but I want to really focus on the writing because this is a question on which many American reviewers have taken the wrong side. After its debut in 2012, “Gidion’s Knot” was all over America, with more than a dozen different regional productions. The play was, as Adams has stated in a recent interview, “actively hated in Sarasota and St. Louis, but Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington DC loved it.”
The Surgeons’ Hall production is the first to be staged outside of America, and the audience that I joined today deemed this play to be an absolute hoot. In America, however, the haters were doing their hating. Terry Byrne at the Boston Globe found the play “moving in increasingly unbelievable circles” until it arrived at an “absurd” and “insulting” ending. The Washington Post came crashing down on “Gidion’s Knot” for its “erratic” story and “misjudged” conclusion. Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times pronounced with truly majestic outrage that the drama “is offensive on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin when enumerating them.”
An Edinburgh audience has the freedom to dispense with this play’s cumbersome political luggage. “Gidion’s Knot” observes, in a single act, a parent-teacher conference which takes place in the aftermath of the child’s suicide. Gidion was, we learn, suspended from school after circulating a short story amongst his classmates which described their teachers being raped, disembowelled, and mutilated. It is naturally an uphill struggle when trying to joke about these things in America. The Chicago Sun-Times reviewer would plead for the teacher to remember “the safety of her entire class and school… remember the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn.”
For me, “Gidion’s Knot” had such a flourish to it because the political context was initially assumed as a disguise, which the play would use to take us unawares. The play’s ghoulishness leaps out at you so unexpectedly because the actors are ladies rather than girls. Were Heather and Corryn (Ewing/Adair), the teacher and mother, portrayed by clever-looking undergraduates, then we would be more accustomed to its horror. Adams has attributed her play’s success to “a shortage of good roles for actresses “of a certain age” in our theatre today… that is part of the appeal.” I would add that these are not just any old “good roles.”
I was expecting an intensely anguished play about ineffective adults trying to form some connection with nihilistic youngsters. “Gidion’s Knot” certainly retains the depth which might come with such a play, but it manages to simultaneously wriggle out of all of the seriousness. Beneath its respectable surface waits a story of outstanding bad taste and virtually Lovecraftian horror.
“Gidion’s Knot” submits to its own logic and it is happy to follow where this goes. At first, the play will not reveal why Gidion has been suspended, and this foot-dragging escalates beyond just a means of creating tension until it begins to maliciously provoke the audience. Whenever the reason for the suspension is revealed, it will have to be momentous to avoid an anti-climax, and so Gidion’s gory story is indeed momentous. Once the play has got going again, however, there is still a danger of the suspense dissipating. The next wild surprise will have to always outdo the next and yet the action on stage continues to flow smoothly, without noticeable jolts and pauses. The play is continually shocking, but it achieves this by continually shocking us with ourselves. We are tittering throughout Corryn’s grief but we cannot help this since her grief is filled with the most superb wisecracking.
We immediately identify Corryn as an anti-establishment figure. Instead of the traditionally embattled or destitute single-mother, however, she turns out to be a professional medievalist. Mother and teacher meet on some faraway battlefield as warriors, with the former personifying the Sixties and its ghastly selfishness and the latter standing for boring social conformity. Both characters are in fact teachers, and Gidion’s creative writing clearly reflects the influence of his mother’s “fighting or fucking” medieval decadence (nevermind that her notion of the medieval is as credible as the Ghostbusters’ Vigo The Carpathian). Heather has been overthrown in her own classroom.
There have been gales of American outrage at the play’s ending and this is infuriating since “Gidion’s Knot” executes a perfect stop. We discover that Heather is in such depths of dismay because she is grieving for her dying cat. As a conventional woman with conventional emotions, it is natural for Heather to dump all of her pity on her pet. Gidion, on the other hand, entailed rather more than just a pathetic obese cat and Corryn, rightly or wrongly, discerns something triumphant in her son’s final days, which should be honoured rather than grieved.