Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting The Yard, an intimate and vibrant little theatre a whisker from Stratford’s Olympic Park. I watched Pilgrims, a 2013 play by Elinor Cook.
This review will contain spoilers.
Dan and Will are world-renowned mountaineers: At age eighteen, they scaled Everest. But six years later, they lie dying on the vault of another peak as Rachel, lapsed PhD student, watches a videologue of their final moments, frantically and helplessly shouting instructions to survive. How did we get here?
Pilgrims does this a lot. It shifts between flashbacks regularly, usually as characters use their accounts and interpretations of the past as ammunition in conflicts of the present. It is almost a kind of mystery drama: characters raise references to the past whilst the audience waits eagerly to see an account for themselves, and our satisfaction is when we understand which interpretations are and are not to be trusted.
I will spoil the surprise: the play implies that authority belongs to Rachel. Something of the playwright’s mouthpiece, she is fixated on narrating and finding symbols in events throughout the play, re-interpreting events vocally, acting out her epiphanies about the oppressive sexism of Western European myth whilst the audience is presumably expected to be working towards the same conclusion. Pilgrims takes aim at one particular such trope: the lone hero leaving behind a passive female – voiceless and forgotten – and Rachel seeks to undermine, question and eventually reverse it.
This is the play’s exclusive interest. Pilgrims is not much interested in its characters beyond the power they do or do not have over the heroine. This is not necessarily a bad thing – plays can be more than psychic watercolours – but a play about Ideas and Relationships rather than people needs to have interesting, relevant ideas and recognizable, relevant relationships. I feel unhappy and a little guilty to say I felt this play didn’t quite have either.
A summary of the plot: Rachel meets the mountaineers roughly a year after their great climb. She’s writing a nebulous, burgeoning, superabundant PhD on folklore, colonialism, Britishness, conservationism, gender and – all of a sudden – climbers. She wants to really get to know their motivations, she says, before storming around the stage, speculating these strangers are motivated by nothing except urges of neo-imperialist conquest, geosexual aggression, unreflective privilege and all manner of progressivist hexes. The edge of the stage is raised; it signifies a cliff edge. Rachel is marching across the cornices of lofty ideas and imaginative speculation. Will asserts that he will make her kiss her, and quite arbitrarily, they kiss.
The bliss does not last. Rachel soon falls for Dan instead, and they choose to settle down together. Rachel gives up her studies, Dan his climbing. But Dan struggles with something like agoraphobia – some unspecified mental illness – and has a compulsion to leave the home on treks. When he accuses Rachel of making him give up his climbing for her sake; she is apoplectic – how could he misrepresent the past so disingenuously? He disappears for several days, returning in rambling incoherence. Rachel opines that he is casting her as a Penelope to his Ulysses.
Returning to the mountain is supposed to be some kind of relief for Dan’s compulsions. But when he and his love rival find themselves faltering – struggling with their ageing, out-of-shape bodies – they begin to squabble. Dan likens himself to John Clare, the poet who wandered Epping Forest in a madness, abandoning his wife. Will silences him in contempt, before Rachel appears, on the edge of the stage. It is an impossibility – but here she stands, like a vision.
Rachel demands Will’s backpack and he gives it her. She demands back a token she gave to Dan – when he resists, Rachel asserts that he only ever saw it as a symbol of her ‘oppression’ anyway. Though Dan protests, he eventually quietly hands the object over all the same. Rachel then sets off on her own journey, and now it is the men who watch passively, left behind. They drop off the stage and take places in the background – her background; light falls on Rachel and the play ends.
Pilgrims is a play about narrative control. Rachel compulsively seeks analogues for her situation in Western myth, but is continually frustrated at the passive, silenced role these analogues grant women like her. The denouement is her attempt to wrestle back control: she speaks, the men act – Dan objects to her interpretation of his motives and inner state, but his plaint falls on deaf ears – she speaks, he acts.
This is supposed to be a liberation, a reversal, but truthfully Rachel is a proxy for Cook right from the beginning: she starts as an aspiring academic, an interpreter by profession, whose dissertation brief is so vast and porous she could rightly claim authority on any matter that crosses the stage; she speaks and is always granted the last word. Her rival interpreter, Dan, tries to find a mythical analogue of his own, but is quickly silenced by Will and then Rachel herself, as though the playwright took for granted his words should be deemed unworthy of a response. She is the most articulate individual on stage, and so the notion she had to struggle to gain control I found touch to believe.
It probably sounds as though I didn’t like Rachel much. Actually, I did – I liked her giddy, speculative, intellectual effervescence. But I wish the play had examined her own obsessions – her fixation on myths, and her tireless need to narrate her own life – as ceaseless and pathological as Dan’s compulsions.
Then again, no character is fleshed out in much depth. We know that Dan has some kind of unspecified mental illness, but the play is not much interested in it, and implicitly approves Will’s vituperative assessment of him as a ‘vain, selfish man’. Will seems a cipher – he is cocky, but his motivations are opaque. Perhaps he is supposed to seem shallow. But why does Rachel fall in love with two such flat and dimensionless characters? I could accept that Will’s wooing is supposed to be arbitrary – he says they will kiss, and they kiss – as though this signified the male’s tight control of the story. But then why would she be interested in the laconic, utilitarian and practically monosyllabic Dan?
As an Ideas Play – about stories and the power they give us – Pilgrims does not need to give us recognizable characters. But it does need to make their relations and the way those characters negotiate those relationships recognizable. If it cannot, then it is a circular and self-contained thing: it creates a situation and then reverses it, but if the situation is not charged by having an orientation parallel to our own, then the play has no transformative power. But do real people in twenty-first century relationships use mythology to shape their common history, and obtain power from that? I was not convinced.
Besides, the chest of ‘Western mythology’ Rachel raids is in practice just too diverse, too contradictory and altogether too old to pass as a stand-in for our modern cultural fabric. Do real men and women think about Ulysses when they discuss who will work and who will stay at home?
Perhaps we are not supposed to be believe Rachel’s narrative has any more legitimacy than her rivals’. Perhaps all that matters is that this new mythology she builds liberates her. But it is depressing to treat historical interpretation and the universal impusle to tell stories as a zero-sum game of conflict, with distinct winners and losers at every turn. And I found it problematic that the play presented its action as a kind of objective, documentary evidence, untarnished by context or fragmentation – as though the fragments were just a puzzle we have to put together to discover Dan’s fraud. I felt very satisfied when I did so, but afterwards, conflicted by the idea of a march towards comprehensive and objective truth that seems so naive and tarnished these days.
In its treatment of narrative and documentary fragments, it would seem to me that Pilgrims is really an anti-postmodern, or at least post-postmodern play. It believes in the liberating power of grand narratives, just so long as they are reversed to serve the historically oppressed. It does not suspend multiple narratives on stage at the same time – one must be accurate, one must be inaccurate, and inaccuracy is simply a play for control. It is not worried, as far as I can tell, that chopping and changing fragments could impose meaning itself. Rachel thinks up new interpretations for what has happened quite voluminously, but the play’s trajectory is her own struggle to choose one in particular.
I must be clear. I did not object to Pilgrims in any technical or even dramatic sense. In fact I would happily suggest you go watch it; it is interesting, tense, appealing and thoughtfully directed. I just didn’t have much truck with its intellectual premise, and found its thesis too insistent, too pat, too self-assured, too confident and unreflecting. But perhaps you will take a visit and return with comments of your own.
Pilgrims is in production at The Yard theatre, Hackney, until the 15th of October 2016.