Written by: Katie Norris
Belleville, directed by Henry Empson and written by Amy Herzog is a play depicting the harsh realities of the American Millennial dream. Couple Abby and Zach supposedly have it all. The apartment in upstanding Belleville, Paris, the ideal jobs of doctor and glamorous sounding actress, and the all-important marriage, featured as their core. However, it took less than one minute from the opening curtain to realise Abby and Zach were living a life more akin to a nightmare than dream.
The couple, so determined to maintain a state of perfection, despite the folding of everything around them, ended up burying themselves so deep under false pretences and lies, they suffocate and collapse as a result. An early emphasis on the age of 28-year-old Abby in comparison to their landlord, who has a wife and two kids at 25, draws attention to the all too familiar pressure placed on young adults throughout their twenties to have their life sorted and perfected, especially as the big three-zero creeps up. With an audience primarily made up of students who have almost certainly felt this pressure to strive for the picture-perfect family life and career, the focus on this particular anxiety was pervasive.
Anxiety snakes it way throughout almost every scene of Belleville, and the actors Jack Detweiler (Zach) and Daisy Paterson (Abby) convincingly brought the audience along the turbulent peaks and troughs. It felt as though each argument dragged the lows a little lower, whilst any peaks began to feel more like manic melodrama. With Abby so caught up in her previous life in America, and all her energy and time being dedicated to her father, heavily pregnant sister, and even her dead mother, it was easy to discern why Zach felt impossibly small and irrelevant. That is not to say he was without fault of his own. With an increasingly concerning attachment to weed, and secrets he’s kept for almost a decade, it is equally of no surprise Abby feels distant and lonely. The pair were depicted as so suitably unsuitable for one another, it became almost painful to witness each argument about increasingly trivial matters. Paterson’s shrill shrieking had the audience physically jumping, viscerally repulsed by her erratic persona, which was impossible to predict. Meanwhile Detweiler’s convincingly calm and almost eerily relaxed performance served as the calm before the storm as the couple’s issues all came to head in a messy, both literally and metaphorically, climatic finish which severed the two for good.
The ending did not even serve as a cathartic release as the tension built throughout the performance was never resolved nor relaxed. The theatre felt increasing claustrophobic as the play ensued, with the set not once changing, and all the action occurring within the interior of one small apartment. As an audience member, I felt the stifling effect of being surrounded too, by the pressures of a relationship stagnated by displacement. Abby notably asserted ‘we’re strangers in a strange land’ crucially drawing attention to the isolation of the pair both internally and externally. This perhaps speaks more widely to the privilege of the middle-class Americans who have the means to live out the romantic ideal, but not the dedication or experience. This is manifested in Abby’s reluctance to put in the effort to speak French, and Zach’s denial that he too has unresolved issues, not just the depressed and anxiety-ridden Abby. Therefore, by the end of the performance, you are left with a sense of inevitability. For how could a couple succeed in starting a new life abroad when both remained so steadfastly attached to their life in America?
Overall, Belleville was quite literally a breath-taking depiction of loss, loneliness, and ignorance. The balance between the faults of both Abby and Zach meant that we were never quite rooting for either character, resulting in a kind of resolution that, no matter what, I won’t end up like them. Perhaps, that was precisely Herzog’s intention in exposing the faults of the ‘Millennial Dream’ which places pressure on young adults to rush into a settled, married life that few are mature enough for.
Don't miss your opportunity to see Belleville on February 2nd at the Byre Theatre. Tickets are available at www.byretheatre.com.