Dennis Kelly’s play Orphans is a relentless, brilliant and horrific trip into nightmare territory.
A young couple, Danny and Helen, sit at home having a romantic dinner when Helen’s brother Liam bursts in covered in someone else’s blood. This happens before any lines are spoken, within the play’s opening minute.
At first Danny says that he was helping someone who had been attacked, but he soon starts to contradict himself and it becomes evident that he was the attacker. Dennis Kelly makes the audience/reader ask questions about what we’d do in the same situation. How much do we excuse for family? Would we cover up a crime? Would we become accomplices? What price do we set on our integrity?
Helen and Liam are the orphans of the title. They’ve grown up in institutions with Helen looking after Liam. This helps explain the lengths she’ll go to now to protect her brother. Another factor in the play’s intensity is that Helen is newly pregnant and isn’t sure she wants the baby while Danny is delighted with the news.
HELEN: Look. We just think maybe this isn’t the right –
DANNY: You just think. Not we. You. (Beat.) I want it. I want our child. I don’t understand why you don’t. Why don’t you want it?
DANNY: I keep touching your stomach. Haven’t you noticed me touching your stomach? I keep touching your stomach because I want to touch it, him, her, I want to touch him or her, I want to touch him or her and I want to push love for him or her through my hand, through your stomach, through your womb and into our child so that he or she knows that he or she is loved.
Orphans is studded with surreal moments, like when Liam sits down and eats Helen and Danny’s meals and commends Danny on the simple ingredients he’s used, oblivious to the fact that they’re both about to break under the stress.
The violence in Orphans is graphic and deeply disturbing – but it’s all spoken, never shown. This works so effectively because the horror is left for us to imagine, rather than being staged.
LIAM: And I just turned and, lashed, and, lashed out, and, caught him, and…. And he went down. And – (Beat.)
I just kept hitting him. I mean I was crying, I was crying but I was smacking him and pounding him and he’s on the floor, silent, not saying anything like, and I couldn’t work out why and I’m hitting and hitting coz I’m shitted right up and I think I might of, you know, started cutting –
Like, I had this blade?
He was showing me these little throwing knives he’s got, tiny, little heavy fat knives for throwing, blade about an inch and a half long, but he keeps them really sharp, like, and we’re talking and he’s showing me other stuff and what have you and I didn’t know I still had it til I saw the blood coming out of these cuts I’d made with it.
On this boy.
I saw the Queensland Theatre Company production of Orphans last week and was so blown away by it that I had to read the script.
Orphans premiered in Edinburgh in 2009 and is published by Oberon (thanks Damien for the update!).
Cast: 2M, 1F