Six generations gathered around a weathered wooden table; their history, trauma, and stories carved into its surface. In Tanya Ronder’s Table, the Best family have survived abandonment, war, and leopard attacks, charted over decades, to explore the central forces of love and family.
The story begins at the end, with Gideon Best (Julian Garner) mystifying his granddaughter Su-Lin (Nicole Pingon) about the cracks, divots, and burns that brand the surface of his great grandfather’s table. As a sort of projected prophet, Gideon draws the memories forth from David Best (Brendan Miles) presenting the table to his new wife (Stacey Duckworth) on their wedding day and back again through Gideon’s grandfather’s (Mathew Lee) departure to war, his mother’s (Duckworth) abusive childhood and her escape, his birth and family’s return to England before the details of his own abusive childhood, the birth of his child (Lee), and eventual escape. Over the course of two hours, the audience is deeply woven in the Best family and the many steps leading to Anthony’s kitchen and Su-Lin’s chatter in it.
Ronder’s script with its semi-chronological structure works like an accumulation of reasons, accounts, and understandings that underpin the Best family and are solidified, made manifest, in the ever-presence of the table. This symbolism comes off as overly sentimental, even trite, in its early, unearned gravity, but over the course of the six lifetimes and many iterations of conversations, the table feels like a worn, comfortable friend. There is a tactile, earthy warmth to the table and its story, accented with rotating chairs like accompanying dancers that flit into and out of attention.
These two elements of the table and its chairs form the majority of Isabel Hudson’s design which concentrates interrelationship scene construction. Lighting design from Martin Kinnane plays with shadows as looming spaces on the edge of conversations. Other scenes are unnaturally blue or lit from above to accentuate the chill of mistakes and missteps the characters charge into. With a sparsely set stage, sound takes a prominent role particularly in the use of reverberation and echos. Musical director, composer, and sound designer Nate Edmondson weaves music into moments of collective joy in Sarah’s (Duckworth) mission and Su-Lin’s playing which severely alter the impact of silence and shouting in moments of disagreement or trauma. This sound design is potently affective in reflecting the shared emotions of the characters on stage.
With a script such as this, the ease of overlap across characters and timelines is critical to the story’s reception. Kim Hardwick’s direction interlaces each thread with clarity and an authentic ease. With many actors playing three characters and acting down parent/child boundaries, the attention to detail in characterisation is very well done. Even in their cruelty, these characters demonstrate great heart and are played with a strong sense of humanity.
Stand out performances from the ensemble included Mathew Lee, who played each of his iterations of the Best line with great consideration, and Stacey Duckworth, who channeled a cold and distant anger into Sarah that was both difficult to watch and compelling. Julian Garner and Danielle King require special mention for the fiercely captivating confrontation between Gideon and his ex-wife Michelle. A laborious rehashing of old hurts and deep-seated disappointments was portrayed with a sharp real pain that made palpable the family history entire. King and Garner have an intense dynamic that strikes and recoils with equal ferocity and works to close the production on a substantial emotional foundation.
A family could be considered a gathering of disparate beings around a shared conception and a shared history. In Table, the image of a family unusual, found, or broken gathered at the table forms the heart of these characters’ lives and beats its repercussions outwards through time as the inescapable truth of their story.
Table is running at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre from July 26th – August 17th