It has been some kind of all-round year for Zoey Dawson. First she directed an impressive all-female Romeo and Juliet at fortyfivedownstairs, then starred in MKA's Edinburgh-bound reprise of The Economist, and is now popping up as the playwright behind The Unspoken Word is "Joe".
Joe is billed by Dawson as an autobiographical take on a miserable break-up. This somewhat paltry premise is made fresh, however, by the relatively convoluted meta-trick of beginning the play as a directed reading, with the actors all ranged along the stage with their scripts. As the reading progresses, the conflict between Zoey's partner (played by Aaron Orzech) and Zoey herself (played by Nikki Shiels), who are both performing in the reading, escalates, leading to a secondary or projected break-up. This Pirandello-esque mutation opens the play onto some interesting ethical questions about what it means to turn your life into art, and reminding one of that nugget of Auden-apocrypha, "art is born out of humiliation."
With Declan Greene at the helm, director, dramaturg and confident ironist, Joe rarely gets too precious about theatrical illusion, and certainly doesn't waste momentum straightening the logic of its device. Each time the play's multiple levels collapse, as they inevitably do, it simply resets and gallops on.
This light touch is essential, but the real key to the evening's success is in Shiels performance as Zoey. Zoey here is like a black hole. Everything in the play is orientated toward her. She is an abject point of seemingly unlimited humiliation that attracts or seizes all who come within her range, tearing their fixation apart as fodder for still deeper mortifications. Shiels has precisely the kind of flush intensity to realise this weird pitch, which is more than mere overacting. While the rest of the cast operate at a relatively calm level of underdone naturalism, Shiels is always a notch above, glowing with embarrassed pride, a constant source of instability. The tensions within the form accentuate this tension between Zoey and her cast, and, as is often the case with meta-theatre, leads swiftly to violence as Zoey's reading comes to an impressively implosive conclusion.
Joe is also a comment on independent theatre, particularly reflecting on the experiences of young female artists like Dawson and Shiels. Though this is perhaps one of the play's less developed points dramatically, one which seems to have been wound back from previous versions of the play, it does provide an additional level of sophistication, a kind of intellectual face to the raw emotions and obsessions bubbling beneath.
Annie Last and Matt Hickey make fine foils to Shiels' incandescent blushes, while Georgina Capper as "The woman who reads the stage directions" does an excellent job of softly mocking the conventions of directed readings.