“You’re on mute,” says Emilia to Giovanni, minutes into this episodic drama about a virtual romance in the early days of the first lockdown. It is by now such a well-worn line – in online theatre as in life – that it inspires an internal groan. But it is a rare trite note and this intelligent Zoom performance does more than reflect overfamiliar pandemic situations back at us. Even if playing it out on a split screen is not a particularly original scenario, it finds new terrain.
Key moments from last year form the backdrop to the relationship, including the announcement of the first Covid death in the UK and Boris Johnson’s plea for Britons to “stay at home”, impeccably impersonated by Jon Culshaw.
Emilia (Rachael Stirling) and Giovanni (Alec Newman) meet at a dinner party and have a night of passion before lockdown, after which they continue their relationship online. Directed by Nicholas Renton and written by Clare Norburn, who is also a soprano, one of the quirkiest aspects is its theme of medievalism: Emilia is a medieval musician while Giovanni is a scriptwriter who wants to write a modernised version of Boccaccio’s Decameron (originally set in the time of the Black Death) as a way of reflecting contemporary Covid realities.
Delivered in weekly episodes, this is theatre that mimics the format of a TV show. The nine-part series began in early March. There is little high drama but the couple’s conversational eddies and undercurrents exert a gentle pull and the series becomes moreish precisely because it is so gentle. Stirling and Newman are understatedly excellent and their characters feel real.
For a while, it appears to be a straight exploration of the paradoxes of socially distanced romance – feeling isolated while in a relationship, and desiring each other while having no physical contact. But five episodes in, it shows signs of developing into an exploration of the boundaries between art and life. Giovanni ropes Emilia into his Decameron project – she could compose the music while he writes the script, he suggests ebulliently, even though she is cash-strapped and gets a job as a supermarket shelf-stacker to pay her rent. As the idea progresses, he introduces elements of their relationship into the drama he is writing, and we feel the rumblings of trouble ahead.
Each episode comes with interludes of medieval music (performed by Norburn’s music ensemble, The Telling, which includes Norburn and Ariane Prüssner as singers, Joy Smith playing the medieval harp and early violin by Jorge Jiménez). The harp features heavily and the music is like a celestial pause between acts.
The relationship is drawn with emotional subtlety; Stirling and Newman are good at expressing vulnerability or romantic hope through nervous smiles and furrowed brows. Alongside the dialogue, we hear their internal monologues – only his thoughts for the first three episodes, after which it switches to hers. “She’s waiting for you to deliver,” he tells himself admonishingly when he can’t find the right words to reassure her about his feelings. “It would be easy to slip into love, and from love into submission,” she reflects for her part, remembering how she became a “wooden doll” in her last failed relationship.
The inner conversation draws us close and we hope for a happy ever after ending for this socially isolated couple, all the while suspecting it is not as simple as that.