In the Guardian on Saturday, Martin Amis predicted it will be years before novelists can make sense of the pandemic. Theatre’s swifter turnaround – and technology allowing a form of live performance – have allowed Richard Nelson already to write and direct three Zoom dramas featuring the Apples, a liberal upstate New York family, first seen in four earlier stage plays.
What Do We Need To Talk About? and And So We Come Forth took them through aspects of infection, isolation and lockdown. In Incidental Moments of the Day, a character – with the shock of a bomb going off – meets a stranger outside. But now an election is coming.
Future historians will feast on this project for its reporting of extraordinary times. Trainee playwrights will find it invaluable as an exemplar of negotiating staging restraints. Nelson’s uncannily naturalistic cast includes actors who live together in life but not art, and vice versa. Ingenious plotting has kept them in the medically permissible rectangles. With several actors simultaneously in vision, their constant subtle reactions are a new form of acting.
A limitation self-imposed by Nelson when he introduced the Apples has become problematic for some. The characters are all privileged white liberals, in a culture now convulsed by BLM as well as Covid-19.
For me, the dramatist was always consciously writing about people living in a bubble, which lockdown then doubled. With three characters who are sisters, Nelson explicitly calls in defence Chekhov (five of whose plays he has adapted), who wrote about a blithe elite surprised by history.
In this play, the Apples are forced to confront the possibility that they are racists by default, and that their view of culture faces cancellation. The affecting last image has the trio of female siblings together on screen yet also physically separate – a dramatic effect that Chekhov would surely have envied. The company has asked UK viewers to consider contributions to the Theatre Artists Fund, supporting lockdown-impoverished creatives. (To which the fee for this piece has been donated.)