4:12. A click, a fuck, a crack; an act, an echo, an attack: that’s all it takes in James Fritz’s provocative play to force the private lives and perspectives of one family into frighteningly acute focus. A revelatory, effective refiguring of classic themes, from reputation to retribution, into a contemporary frame, Four Minutes confronts a mother and father with a terrifying, incriminating act that forces them to face each other as well as the uncomfortable truth. 4:12. That’s all it takes.
Yet, it takes a titanic effort to stage a play as deceptively straight and astute, even in the simplicities of the Alma Tavern Theatre, and first-time director Charlotte Hobbs, in a production produced by the West Acting Workshop, attacks it with strength, detail, and a fervour that sometimes outstrips the striking intimacy of the play’s focus. Talking prior to opening night, Charlotte unpicks the complexities that drew her to Fritz’s play for her first directorial effort: ‘the writing! James Fritz is very good at drip-feeding the audience, and there are layers to every line.’
Thrilling and thought-provoking, it pivots on the shifting perspectives of David and Di as a video of their sheltered son in flagrante delicto is posted online, and as David’s facetious father’s pride sharpens into a suspicious defence, Di’s motherly protection shatters under the three-dimensional and non-consensual evidence. Fritz’s writing is witty, devious, and unpredictable, yet, in wilfully veering away from the predictable, it does feel less provocative, and less productive, in its avowal: the apple falls too far from the tree if Jack isn’t the perpetrator of the suspected rape as well as its proliferation; David’s deep-rooted, damaging views aren’t passed on like a well-preserved familial trait, and the violent physicality of Jack’s palm forced over his ex’s mouth is deprived of it’s power as a mirror of David’s psychological silencing of Di.
Even so, the writing avoids defining villains and victims – and the video evidence, as well as Jack’s view, is left offstage – and it’s Fritz’s crafting of difficult characters that appealed to Charlotte as an actor as well as a director. ‘I wanted to play them all! They’re real and relatable; you watch it and you know them.’
The actors, from the West Acting Workshop, grapple with the gripping dialogue well, with Rebecca Parr’s grit and fragility as Di, fracturing as David fortifies, working effectively against Michael Pring’s slightly idle, downtrodden, poker-faced father, whose soft-voiced defence grows frighteningly complicit upon reflection. Elsewhere, Louie Wanless is an authentic Nick, Jack’s achingly sincere and sensitive classmate, and Tace Rogers’s Cara, Jack’s ex and the unconsenting focus of the film, throws the classist and sexist truths of Jack’s act at his mother with acrimony.
The acting is proof of Charlotte’s comfort with character work, something which focused her directing. ‘With character, it’s good to go with your gut. It keeps things fresh, and doesn’t look forced.’ There’s a lot to play with, and the less prescriptive individual directions are, the fresher every show is for the actors, and there’s proof of that in their passion and dedication.
Working as an actor shaped Charlotte’s approach to directing, with ‘an understanding that each actor needs a different approach’, and as such, she’s ‘a lot more patient!’ in her process. There’s also value in the practical experiences Charlotte has from working as an actress, from acting techniques to technicalities, and she says it’s ‘easy to forget’ that less experienced or non-professional actors appreciate support through the offstage aspects, too.
Through the West Acting Workshop, Charlotte also worked with sound designer Ryan Coole, whose wonderful electronic discord underscores the work, and lighting designer Susan Howe, whose simple lighting works so well with a moment of astute, static direction to produce a strikingly austere effect for Di’s distressing viewing of the video in Act II. A mesmerising portrait of a mother paralysed by truth, lit by the confronting intensity of a spot used as a laptop screen, it contrasts the movement and often unfortunate interference of the scenery shifting with a still, stark simplicity.
Apart from the lighting and sound, Charlotte led the direction of all other aspects, from the set to the production’s social media presence, and its an impressive demonstration of her drive and determination, as well as the faith she has in the play. Directing involves ‘a lot of confidence in your vision’, and Charlotte feels those pressures especially working in a field where parts – on and offstage – are limited for women: ‘guys get all these great roles, and then you’re the girlfriend!’
Pushing against peripheral and structural pressures is also something Fritz’s play does: ‘it’s very relevant, and I like theatre that pushes on an issue, something that’s shocking and with something to say.’ As a play, it wrestles with explicit issues, from social class to sexual consent, yet what it has to say is that these things are insidious; like Jack, and even David, we’re all seedlings diseased by deeply rotten roots.
Yet, the play is unashamedly a shocker, and it’s easy to see why it appealed to Charlotte as a director as we discuss her theatrical favourites, from the powerful, pull-no-punches People, Places and Things to the experimental complexity of Orphan, a piece devised by a South West theatre collective that she’s familiar with. ‘A lot of emerging companies are creating their own work, and no one is just an actor anymore – you can’t afford to be! We’re all familiar with ‘triple threats’, but we’re in the million-threat theatre makers now.’
And a lot of promising theatre makers practise and perfect their craft in a place like the Alma Tavern Theatre. And, as Charlotte says with a wry smile at the realisation that we’re somewhere very similar, you can see a lot of exciting things in ‘a room above a pub’. ‘People don’t like taking chances on smaller theatre, but change has to start somewhere.’ An effort, an act, a change: is that all it takes?