Duncan Macmillan’s play is a brilliant evocation of addiction and what happens to performers when they can’t not perform. Dramas about addiction can be exciting to watch. And then dispiriting. Exciting because degradation is fascinating to follow from the relative safety and smugness of an “appropriate” life, and dispiriting because if all that sad mayhem can happen to this or that character what’s to keep it from happening to me or you?
Emma, the protagonist in Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things, created at the National Theatre in London in 2015, suffers greatly, but she is also interested in how far and fast she can fall and still pull back before landing permanently in the gutter: she’s the star of her own tinsel tragedy. Like many junkies, Emma is a brutalizing sentimentalist chasing the dragon while also chasing some idea of love, which involves regret as well. She would “only connect” if she could, or if that kind of connection held her interest for long enough.
Emma’s an actress, a sloppily confrontational, drug-addled mess in a business populated by handlers who applaud inflated self-regard. She likes to be watched—she demands it—but in her state she demeans the honor of drawing the audience’s attention. Onstage, she jerks and twists her way through a scene about failed dreams and unrequited love. What play is this, though? Some of the lines are familiar. Ah, that sad, tall guy is Treplev, from Chekhov’s Seagull, so Emma, in a long black dress, must be Nina, Treplev’s childhood friend and an aspiring actress, Nina, with her dreams and her hysteria. As the scene disintegrates and dance music is piped in and, leaving her costume behind, she goes off to a rave in a world far from Chekhov’s, a club populated by party people who don’t want the night to end, if it is, in fact, night.
The next day—or some other day, who can say—Emma sits, stoned while trying not to be, in the lobby of a rehab facility in London. By seeking help, Emma puts us on her side: who doesn’t identify with the desire to be better, to be transformed, rehabilitated? We all need “work.” And Emma needs to get through rehab if she’s ever going to be hired as an actress again. Indeed, the desire to act is never far from her heart or her way of being: she signs into rehab as “Nina,” a distressing and distressed character who both is and is not herself.
Throughout the almost two-and-a-half-hour play, Macmillan and make the point that drugs both allow Emma to compartmentalize her various selves in her real life and encourage her not to have a real life at all. Group therapy is useless to Emma until she tells her life story—except that it’s not her life story. Another recovering addict, Mark, recognizes it as the plot of Hedda Gabler. Who is Emma without a script? A broken girl who was close to her brother, who died young—and she couldn’t grieve with her parents, no way. Besides, if she stood up to the agony of her loss who would stand up for her? Macmillan has written a brilliant evocation of what happens to performers when they can’t not perform, when they live lives in which the curtain never seems to come down, ever.