[What the Heart Knows]
I’ll admit it: I’m a hopeless romantic.
It’s a quality I share with Otto (Leon Wadham), the protagonist of Essays in Love, though we differ in our preferred outlets for romantic escapism: me, a never-ending catalogue of romantic comedies; Otto, the writings of history’s most erudite philosophers.
We first meet Otto before the house lights have dimmed, rushing breathless into the theatre. Discarding a leather suitcase at the door, he paces across the stage, wiping the perspiration from his brow and signalling awkwardly for the tech to cut the playlist of 90s love songs pulsing from the speakers.
Otto gulps at us, standing in front of an enormous papier-mâché heart bordered by ribbon and paper roses. It’s clear his night is not going as planned. “This was supposed to be a comedic representation of essays about love,” he explains. “There’s been some last-minute changes.”
He produces an answering machine, and a knowing groan echoes from the audience. When he pushes play, we hear a woman’s voice: “It’s me. I guess I missed you… I was meaning to call earlier. Sorry for being so confusing.” We don’t hear how the message ends, but we don’t need to. Sitting with slumped shoulders and a wavering bottom lip, Otto emanates heartbreak.
For all Otto’s turmoil, he’s determined: the show must go on. After all, he’s already paid for the venue, and he’s spent weeks building the AV (an entrancing combination of projection and animation that paints Otto’s world and feelings onto the space around him). He’s written a new script, and in lieu of his acting partner, Jemima (whom he hastily, now regretfully, advised that the play was cancelled), he looks to the audience for assistance: “I thought you guys could help me.”
Over the next hour and a half, we witness the love story of Otto and Chloe, a chance meeting of 1 in 989.727 on a British Airways flight from Paris to London. Recruiting members of the audience to play Chloe’s part, Otto relieves the small, messy, electric, petty, meaningful, nerve-wrecking, fiery, and entirely ordinary moments that filled their relationship. It’s not simple, but neither are they.
Adapted for the stage from philosopher Alain de Botton’s eponymous novel by Eli Kent and Oliver Driver, Essays in Love is a nuanced, humorous and overwhelmingly relatable reflection on the ways we understand, rationalise and reconcile heartbreak.
Sharply written, creatively imagined and superbly directed, there is much to praise about Essays in Love even without its tremendous performance by Leon Wadham. From the outset, Wadham is captivating. Immensely likeable, he skillfully navigates the script’s medley of comedic and dramatic beats, repeatedly falling in and out of love before our eyes.
It’s not often that you realise you’re excited to rewatch a play part-way through the first act, but with Essays in Love, it was love at first sight. My advice to hopeless romantics and cynics alike: don’t miss your chance to see (and re-see) this truly wonderful play.
Essays in Love plays Basement Theatre 10-21 March, 2020.