The Bitterness of Pomegranates is uncomfortable, and that’s a wonderful thing. It isn’t discomfort caused by weak dialogue, for Julia Clark’s script is well written. Nor is it caused by poor acting, since I witnessed none. The play is uncomfortable because it should be. It is the most candid reflection of family life I’ve ever seen, and I’m unsure there’s anything more uncomfortable than family matters.
Pomegranates opens, happens, and closes in a kitchen. There is nothing remarkable about this kitchen and the audience feels that they know this place, which is why it’s a remarkable set. A tablecloth drapes unevenly over the dining table, a broomstick leans easily in a corner, blue and white chequered patterns abound, the appliances of modern cooking clutter the benches, and so forth.
The characters that visit the kitchen are just as familiar. Though the story’s impetus is Dorothy’s (India Cordony) friendship with the town “lunatic”, it is her sister Margaret (Gabby Floreck) through whom all other characters are connected. Gwen (Sarah Graham) is her mother, Richard (Brendan Colnan) her husband, Emily (Diana Reid) her friend, and so forth. Margaret is in a unique position as the story’s interpersonal pivot enables her to play a variety of roles throughout the duration of the show, and Floreck performs each role deftly. Margaret is as much a daughter as she is a mother, as well as a wife, sister, and friend. All of these vastly different relationships seem as real as each other, there is joy and complication in each, and it is this diversity within a single person which makes her so reflective of reality.
Other major characters, though lacking such a central position, still manage to demonstrate the nuance which makes Pomegranates so realistic. For much of the play Gwen (for several reasons) appears vulnerable and in need of assistance, but when a different need arises she shows as much versatility in social and familial roles as Margaret does. It would surprise me if Graham’s empathetic acting didn’t prompt at least a few calls from various audience members to their grandmothers.
Emily, Margaret’s friend in the Country Women’s Association, is prying, somewhat superficial, polite but not entirely pleasant, and hilarious to watch. Reid’s acting perfectly imitates a type of grating social butterfly so many of us have met before, and if Emily isn’t as nuanced as some other characters, her position outside the story’s family and hence much of the play’s scope justifies this possible lack of exploration.
Cordony’s portrayal of Dorothy is consistent and convincing, but the character herself is, from her first scene to her last, somewhat mysterious. She experiences an unspecified mental health issue, but Dorothy’s expression is often inscrutable, her thoughts and feelings rarely as clear to the audience as those of other characters. She’s a very likeable character, but it is sometimes difficult to understand her. This is possibly because Clark chose, given the play’s brevity, to focus more on how a family and community treat mental health than on how individuals experience it. It is an understandable authorial and directorial decision, but it is easy to imagine audience members who could be dissatisfied with such a choice.
I began by declaring Pomegranates uncomfortable, a statement which warrants further elucidation now. The majority of viewers will be familiar with the majority of characters: Margaret mirrors one’s own or their friend’s mother, Emily emulates an annoying acquaintance, and so on. Extremely naturalistic dialogue, reminiscent of too many conversations audience members may recall from their own lives, renders these characters even more identifiable. The play then throws these associations into situations which are as realistic as the characters themselves, and are all the more confronting because of it. Seeing someone cry is disconcerting for anyone who experiences empathy, but seeing Gwen struggle to hold back tears and feeling that you actually know Gwen, almost that it’s your own grandmother in distress, is deeply moving. And the powerlessness of being an audience member, being unable to intervene in struggles unfolding within metres, exacerbates such feelings markedly.
Not only the most dramatic moments create this discomfort, however, which is almost omnipresent throughout the play. Particularly contributory is the way characters interact with the set. There are moments, perhaps whole minutes, when characters simply use the kitchen, their kitchen. The story doesn’t progress at such times, the characters simply go about their lives. Groceries are unpacked, toast made, books read, etc. Done clumsily these could feel like wastes of time, but they are not done clumsily. Rather they remind the audience that, to the characters, what we’re seeing isn’t a finite story with a convenient resolution, it is life. We entered and left the theatre, but the controversy surrounding Dorothy’s decisions doesn’t end for Margaret et al at about 8PM. These silent, mundane moments – so unusual in theatre, so ubiquitous in life – not only make it easier to identify with the play’s characters, a previously explained source of discomfort, but also make the audience feel intrusive. These are people we know, and we’re violating their privacy. The audience feels uncomfortable because Pomegranates almost feels too real, a result of skilful cast and crew alike.
Why is realness discomforting, though? In truth it isn’t. Pomegranates isn’t moving because it does reflect reality, but rather because it shouldn’t. It portrays what families often are: not cataclysmically broken, but not as safe and supportive as we would like them to be. It doesn’t concern itself with extremities most audience members will never experience, but with mediocrities almost everyone does. It might leave you wanting to see more than 50 or so minutes can show – more about some characters’ relationships, for instance, or a deeper investigation of mental health – but you definitely won’t wish you’d seen less.
This article was previously attributed to Shannen Potter due to an editorial error. William Edwards is the actual author.