Rose Lewinstein’s new play, co-produced by the Orange Tree with English Touring Theatre, is a complex one-act piece with many points to make about gender politics, climate change, corporate greed, sexual power, and identity.
We first meet Leila (Charlotte Randle) and John (Mike Noble) in a luxury hotel room, which could be placed anywhere. There’s a double bed, a TV, a minibar, a large window with a view, a mirror, a door. She’s staying there for a conference, he works on the staff. There’s been some kind of altercation, and he’s stayed the night.
With very short scenes punctuated by stage lights off and on, we follow the progress of the relationship between these two through a succession of identikit rooms across the globe, as John becomes Leila’s paid pet, with the agreement that outside of planes and rooms, they do not communicate, and little personal information is ever shared – we know he lives in Acton, she in Richmond, but little else.
She boasts that she wants to make a difference to the world, to halt the floods and heat that threaten the long-term survival of the planet, but it becomes apparent that her conference speeches coerce big business to engage for the profits they will gain, and that her own ambition is to have a huge salary and an endlessly expensive designer wardrobe, of which, by extension, John becomes a part when she presents him with a Gucci package of clothes identical in shape and colour to his own, cheaper, togs.
There’s hints of a darker backstory, too, as Leila likes violence, stating she “will not break like a china doll”, and teasing her toy to fury and jealousy through her (fabricated) shenanigans around town in Thailand. Outside the room(s), the world becomes more complicated: at one point, it is noted that California is under water and some countries are close to starvation.
There are metaphors a plenty in this piece – sexual ones, with Leila literally devouring pieces of meat she craves despite being a vegetarian; cultural ones, with France, Italy, Asia, Africa, anywhere becoming part of the same melting pot; primal ones, with the excessive consumption of alcohol on display; moral ones, with a gift to a beggar uprooting the synergy of the world Leila happily bleeds a huge salary and racks up a destructive carbon footprint from.
There’s also a mystery in another boy/man, mute, but seen in three scenes: once as a well-dressed room service bellhop, once as a savage dripping in blood, once as a mirror of John seen through a suburban window in Richmond. I’m assuming he’s played by Ryan Layden, who gets a thanks credit in the programme, but please correct me if I am wrong.
The sexual politics of the interplay between Leila and John made me think of Last Tango in Paris, tweaked and subverted for a new generation where the “Cougar” of the title, the older woman and man-eater, is the protagonist of the relationship. John Mortimer’s Lunch Hour, too, where identities are played with in a hotel room setting, with the real world locked outside.
I’m seeing When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other at the National on Saturday. Although Cougar flirts with a relationship which may live on the fringes of BDSM, it pulls back from ever really going there, a couple of slaps across the face aside. Its games are more mind over matter. It will be interesting to compare the more showy play with this one.
Rosanna Vize has created a claustrophobic set which caused those on the front row to engage rather more deeply with the stage area than they may have previously, with a metal cage structure with two perspex panels which serve for window and mirror. The conceit of image is played with in the set just as much as it is in John’s camera, which he first covets, then destroys.
Chelsea Walker directs with a tight focus, assisted by lighting and sound design by Jess Bernberg and Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, but I can’t say I really understand what Lewinstein’s work is getting at. I enjoyed watching both Randle and Noble inhabiting their characters, but didn’t get their motivation to engage in this weird, globe-trotting charade.
Cougar continues at the Orange Tree until the 6th March, and runs approximately 75 minutes.