Sheer Drop bring two new plays by young, exciting writers to the Tristan Bates Theatre, and they are both hugely impressive: The Death of Norman Tortilla, by Charlotte Coates, is a searing inditement of our celebrity-obsessed culture and a frightening insight into ageing – clever and powerful. At the Tristan Bates Theatre.
Norman Tortilla’s life has not been fair. So he says to his Polish care worker and the visiting gas saleswoman, vehemently trying to have his words recorded for posterity – and the snippets of his life that we hear about are not happy ones, sad tales of social rejection and petty crime. Is this a life really worth recording? To Jarek, the care worker, Norman’s ramblings just reinforce his ideas of purity and usefulness, while Tandie, the gas saleswoman, has her own problems, leaving the audience questioning their own views on personal importance and tragedy.
I had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing The Death of Norman Tortilla a-year-and-a-bit ago as part of a short play festival, and it’s wonderful to see how it has advanced in that time – plot holes have been filled, and the piece has a much better sense of momentum and time. If anything, it has become a little more depressing – a new opening highlights how crushing Norman’s life is, and a couple of line tweaks have made the themes more universal – this is now truly the play about peoples’ place in the world that it was trying to be beforehand.
It’s not an easy piece – Norman’s self-involved self-flagelation becomes very tiresome very quickly, as does Tandie’s rambling avoidance; the only character you feel any sympathy with is Jarek, who turns out to be rather hideously sadistic. It’s also quite difficult not to feel personally involved – we’ve all considered our own importance in the grand scale of things, and Norman’s celebrity and posterity obsession counters nicely with Jarek’s rather more utilitarian view, while Tandie’s very human concerns remind us of life’s simplicities within these potentially portentious arguments.
Outside of the difficult-to-swallow grand themes, there is some wonderful character work here as well – Robert Gill has the time of his life as Norman, combining theatrical luvvie and confused old man into a delightful and terrible character, and Nick Ruben’s Jarek manages to combine chilling and likeable – genuinely disturbing. The only character who flounders a little is Morag Sims’ Tandie, who is drawn in multiple directions at nearly all times – she needs more grounding within the plot.
Where the original had a tendency to ramble off into the surreal, this is a much more naturalistic production – props, set and direction has focused on making everything more believeable, and the result is much more difficult to take in – instead of dismissing some of the stranger moments, they are now too visceral too ignore, which matches the rather shocking ending. As said before, this is not an easy play to watch, but these are the questions that good theatre must tackle – even if the conclusion it reaches is as bleak as it is here.
It’s just as striking as the first time I saw it, and this production of The Death of Norman Tortilla only enhances this excellent script – it’s not like a lot of other theatre, but that’s the beauty of new writing as good as this.