“Yyou are in silence ”, Emilia tells Giovanni, minutes after this episodic drama about a virtual romance in the first days of the first confinement. By now it’s such a worn line, both in online theater and in life, that it inspires an inner groan. But it’s a rare and trivial note and this Smart Zoom performance does more than reflect all too familiar pandemic situations. Even if playing it on a splitscreen isn’t a particularly original setting, find new ground.
Key moments from the past year form the backdrop to the relationship, including the announcement of Covid’s first UK death and Boris Johnson’s plea to the British to ‘stay home’, immaculately imitated by Jon Culshaw.
Emilia (Rachael Stirling) and Giovanni (Alec Newman) meet at dinner and have a night of passion before the confinement, after which they continue their relationship online. Directed by Nicholas Renton and written by Clare Norburn, who is also a soprano, one of the most extravagant aspects is its theme of medievalism: Emilia is a medieval music while Giovanni is a screenwriter who wants to write a modernized version of Boccaccio’s Decameron (originally set in the era of the Black Death) as a way of reflecting the contemporary realities of Covid.
Presented in weekly episodes, this is a theater that mimics the format of a television show. The nine-part series began in early March. There is little drama, but the couple’s conversational eddies and undercurrents exert a gentle tug and the series becomes more intense precisely because it is so smooth. Stirling and Newman are excellent and their characters feel real.
For a while, it seems to be a straightforward exploration of the paradoxes of socially estranged romance – feeling isolated during a relationship and desiring each other without having physical contact. But in five episodes, it shows signs of becoming an exploration of the boundaries between art and life. Giovanni involves Emilia in his Decameron project: she could compose the music while he writes the script, he enthusiastically suggests, even though she has no money and gets a job as a supermarket stacker to pay the rent. As the idea progresses, you bring elements of your relationship into the drama you’re writing, and we feel the buzz of trouble ahead.
Each episode comes with interludes of medieval music (performed by the Norburn Music Ensemble, Counting, which includes Norburn and Ariane Prüssner as singers, Joy Smith playing the medieval harp, and Jorge Jiménez’s first violin). The harp comes out loud and the music is like a heavenly pause between acts.
The relationship is drawn with emotional subtlety; Stirling and Newman are good at expressing vulnerability or romantic hope through nervous smiles and furrowed brows. Along with the dialogue, we hear her internal monologues, just her thoughts for the first three episodes, after which she switches to hers. “She’s waiting for you to give it,” he tells himself admonishingly when he can’t find the right words to reassure her about his feelings. “It would be easy to fall in love, and from love into submission,” she reflects for her part, remembering how she became a “wooden doll” in her last failed relationship.
The inner conversation brings us closer together and we hope for a happily ever after ending for this socially isolated couple, while suspecting that it is not as simple as that.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism