Searching for honesty on the way to salvation

April 15, 2016

It is difficult but important to watch Denise Gough’s astonishing performance as the self-destructive Emma in Duncan Macmillan’s new play People, Places, Things. She is engrossing, enthralling and utterly infuriating.

No wonder that Gough has just received the Olivier award for Best Actress, with critics hailing her performance as a tour-de-force. The play, which I am happy to sponsor, is enjoying an extended run having transferred to the Wyndham Theatre from the National thanks to the reaction from critics and the public.

The quality of the production from acting to set is undeniably high, and it is superbly directed by Jeremy Herrin, artistic director of the touring theatre company Headlong. But I believe audiences are reacting to far more than just a well-staged night at the theatre.

It seems to me that the play itself dares us to search within and ask how we feel about the truth. Can we ever be completely honest with ourselves and do we understand what redemption truly means?

Emma is an addict entering rehab and fighting every step of the way. She is too clever to be helped, too tragic, too self-important, too busy. She is manipulative, demanding and hollow. And the hardest truth she claims to face is that life without highs is meaningless, saying: “I want to live. I want to live vividly and make huge, spectacular, heroic mistakes.”

The doctors and fellow recovering addicts help her to open up, and take herself apart, so that she can begin to understand what recovery means. And this is what Emma finds hardest; trusting others with your true self requires enormous courage.

Trust requires us to make a bond – forged in truth – or else relationships remain sterile and one must continue on a lonely existence, without support or safety net.

This is not just applicable to romantic relationships but also to those friendships we develop through work or shared passions. It is also particularly relevant to families as Emma discovers. Unable to be honest with her own parents, she cannot rely on them for support when she needs it most. Her endless lies have corroded their desire to help her.

The one gift left that they can give is a jolt of self-knowledge so fierce she cannot hide any more and has to be honest with herself. Can any of us manage that? There can be no lasting love or happiness without honesty; our salvation is surely worth the attempt.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation