Sean Burnâ€™s 'Collector of Tears' is a poetic and epic love story spanning over four hundred years. A powerful play, encompassing sexual and survivor politics, the touring production was directed by Jackie Fielding and performed by Madeline McMahon. Review by Simon Jenner
The Marlborough stage in Brighton is diminutive; the set was bare with a raised dais, written on as the backdrop is, in the scroll of events unfolding. The fittings weigh words lightly, spot-lit and uncluttered with a magic circle of flasks bearing tears.
This play relies on the actor’s vocal impersonations, expression and athletic ability, on occasion leaping. Using props with great sparseness: everything turns on the performance, which is mesmerizing, wholly inhabited and riveting!
McMahon performs the monologue as if her life since 1568, when the character was born, depended on her compressing the truth of its 446 years into 43 and 48 minutes. Her skirling laugh – particularly that of Jenny Wren the gay prostitute – makes up for any lack of tears from the protagonist, the plot’s hinge. Her physical force is overwhelming yet keeps its bounds – nothing is overleapt.
This is a tour de force of acting, and on occasion cello playing, unobtrusively performed to the side of the platform by Ken Patterson, imitating viol to lute to guitar and oud.
In 1586 Tanya Sealt’s dying grandmother reveals herself: a woman who for 150 years never cried. Now Tanya is fixed at 18, forced out of her Orlando-like home after her father, a salt merchant, banishes her. She speeds on as a boy Nate Salt meeting Shakespeare in 1596, inspiring Lear. After he dies her next stop-off is the law campaigner, John Lilburn collecting his wife’s tears.
We speed through such collections, the laughter of Jenny, Tanya’s Hogarthian lover, one-armed black Caesar who helps her drag Mary Wolstencraft from the river, the love of her life Greek Pinelopi a fellow VAD nurse from 1915. Pinelopi pronounces: “Sappho, mother of poetry, she was bisexual, we greek invent bisexual, we invent poetry too…” Pinelopi’s idiomatic slurs produce some of the wittiest dialogue.
Tanya attacked in 1948 by homophobes wakes up in the NHS, promptly sectioned for 30 odd years for telling her story. Largatcil is forced upon her. Her assault on narcotic television blisters. The crisis comes on the day Thatcher resigns.
As fable this works beautifully. As realism it’s a device with history attached - the sea-green ribbon of the Levellers. Burn’s art, political thread and sexual politics, make this more than an Orlando for our times. Another parallel is Janacek’s opera The Makropulos Affair, where an opera singer never ages. Tanya however is political, remembers everything. Witness and thread, she summarizes resistance with some measure of victory.
Sean Burn has written poetry (Survivors’ Press, Shearsman), and prose. His seven monologues - produced as a Royal Court-style programme - and seven plays, reveal one of our most innovative playwrights, in just 10 years. Like Caryl Churchill he continually shifts form, encompassing ever-wider expression. This, his most humane, heart-warming play, is his finest to date. And Madeline McMahon should become known nationally after this tender, raucous, cackling, heart-storming performance.
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