REVIEW: Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

In this week’s literary review, Eliza Quinn examines Lisa Halliday’s critically-acclaimed debut novel Asymmetry. Quinn examines notions of power and domination in the affair between a young woman and a much older man, begging the question: is this ok?

I adored it, contemplated it, felt challenged by it. I obsessively and annoyingly recommended it to all of my friends, at the slightest lull in any conversation. I liked it, and will continue to like it, because it does what any work of art should do: it made me think differently about the world around me and made me see things more clearly.

As the title implies, Asymmetry is about imbalances of power. Divided into three sections, we follow first the story of Alice, a 20-something editor, working in New York. Early on in the novel, she has a chance encounter with Ezra Blazer, a world-famous, Nobel-Prize winning author who is much older than she is. They begin an affair, which lasts for several years.

Halliday describes their affair from the third person, but not necessarily from Alice’s personal perspective. Instead the focus rests intentionally on their dialogue, their conversations with one another. Throughout the book, you never gain insight into Alice’s actual thoughts concerning the affair with Ezra, instead, their words and actions are methodically written down by Halliday, like an empirical study of the relationship by a cool observer. This detached, objective writing style demands of the reader to make their own judgement, to apply their own emotions and experiences onto the skewed relationship they are reading about. Halliday offers no personal spin, no clear bias, compelling the reader to make one for themselves. Most importantly, it highlights the gross imbalance of power between these two people, and asks the reader to make a personal judgement call on the question that obsessively rang through my head like an alarm bell: is this ok?  

Because the power imbalance is there, unavoidably and unsettlingly there. From the beginning of their liaison, Ezra phones Alice when he wants to see her, the words CALLER ID BLOCKED telling the reader he has done so. He can always reach her, but she can never reach him. Everything about their relationship is skewed, with Ezra holding all of the cards.

When they’re together, he tells her what to wear and eat, how to act, and what to read.

What does Alice get out of it? The brilliance of the novel lies in the fact that we simply have to make our own assumptions. Through imparting our own subjective experiences onto the text, we come to know ourselves better and are forced to question our assumptions.

Asymmetry is a sharp and thorough examination of unequal power dynamics, posing questions that stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. If it wasn’t already blatantly obvious, I highly recommend it as a must-read. 

One Man, Two Guvnors: Reviewed

To call Mermaid’s production of Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guv’nors a rip-roaring success would perhaps be the understatement of the theatrical year (even though its only getting started). The show that Isobel Sinclair and her talented cast have assembled is a cacophonous delight that roars along its hefty three-hour runtime with such enthusiasm that you’ll barely notice the minutes whipping by. Bolstered by a witty and occasionally very blue script, replete with pratfalls, topical humour and hysterical sound cues, there really is no aspect of this production that can be anything but applauded. 

It opens in a thoroughly cockneyfied 1960’s Brighton, with the usual setup of a classical farce (Bean’s play being adapted from the 18th Century Italian play A Servant of Two Masters): a young couple who are supposedly desperately in love are thrown apart from one another by circumstance and family loyalty. The story, however, takes an immediate left-turn by introducing the human hand-grenade that is Ed Polsue’s Francis Henshall. We then follow Henshall as he attempts to satisfy his most fundamental needs (eating and … the other thing), getting entangled between two masters who know each other better than Henshall can possibly imagine. 

First off, credit must be given to the astonishingly talented and evidently hard-working cast that Sinclair and her team have assembled. There was not one weak link and the performances all provoked uproarious laughter. Edd Smith and Ned Fiennes shone in small but eccentric roles as a voyuer, a policeman, and a priest attempting to steal a suitcase (among others). Lydia Milne carried off a dual-role with aplomb, keeping her performance understated while pretending to be her dead brother Roscoe but exuding charm and warmth as Rachel Crabbe. Her scenes with Louis Wilson where they tear each other’s clothes off on the pier they’ve just attempted to fling themselves from were perhaps the raunchiest I’ve seen on a St Andrews stage, and both performers threw themselves into it with a chemistry and professionalism to be wondered at. Wilson was also fantastic as the brash, sadistic yet oddly loveable Stanley Stubbers, his performance being the most technically impressive of a very talented bunch. A special shout-out must also go to Charlie Flynn as the unfortunate octogenarian who is flung about the stage mercilessly, proving a highlight of an already jam-packed play.

None of the cast’s fantastic chemistry would work nearly as well, however, without the revelation that is Ed Polsue. His Henshall manages to be simultaneously immensely base and incredibly endearing, his interactions with the audience a marvel that utterly shattered the fourth-wall and had me completely immersed in the irreverent farce going on onstage. He sparks off every character in turn and barrels the plot forward through his (often assinine) attempts to serve two masters at once. Polsue has shown himself to be a wonderfully diverse performer with a breezy charisma that can carry a whole three-hour show with apparent ease.

It is clear just how much effort and time have gone into this show. The comedic timing, whether with dialogue or slapstick, was flawless, and could only have been managed through endless rehearsals and meticulous choreography. The staging was sparse but immersive, even edging towards lavish in the penultimate pier jumping scene, where a projector beautifully evoked the sea under a moonlit sky. Lighting cues were used effectively to imbue the production with a zany, often surreal bursts of colour. The costumes were gorgeous and period-accurate; even the scene transitions contained zany musical numbers that kicked the play further into surrealism.

While all these elements add up to an absolute sensorial extravaganza, my one niggling concern is that none of it adds up to very much. The plot is paper-thin and, while that is often the point of farce, by the very end I felt as if the show had gotten a little breathless under the weight of how much fun it was having. Like an excessive amount of cotton candy, one can’t help feeling a little empty after the sugar rush has subsided.

Even so, I really am in awe of the project Sinclair has managed to pull off. Just thinking about the amount of meticulous planning this show must have taken makes my head hurt. She and her entire team made a show of a truly professional standard, and they should be immensely proud—and probably have something to drink.  

4 out of 5 Owlies