Sinners review – Brian Cox directs sand-blasted sex and death drama

Miriam Gillinson

Brian Cox, so deliciously appalling as Logan Roy in Succession, is the headline draw in this production. Cox is not acting but directing Joshua Sobol’s curious play and he does so with a light touch. The setting is an unnamed location in the Middle East, where a woman, Layla (Nicole Ansari, the director’s wife), awaits death by stoning after having an adulterous affair. Buried in a mound of sand, Layla shares her last moments with her lover and student, Nur (Adam Sina).

That might sound painfully intense but Sobol’s play is laced with dark humour and underpinned by a fierce sexual charge. Beckett’s Happy Days looms large here, although Layla’s situation is more extreme than even Beckett might have imagined. In Happy Days, Winnie’s arms are initially free but, at the start of Sinners, Layla sits buried up to her shoulders and shrouded in a brown cloak. When Layla talks wistfully of the sun caressing her face, she looks like a strange creature or a ghost. It’s one of many unsettling moments, prompting guilty bursts of uncertain laughter.

Lacking Beckett’s exquisite control, Sobol’s script is fairly uneven; studied and declamatory one minute, loose and casual the next. What Sobol does capture, however, is the surprising power dynamic between this couple. Despite her desperate situation, Layla runs the show at every turn. She dictates the tone, which judders from flippant to sexy to despairing to raging, as the two lovers woozily remember their past and flinch at their future. Ansari’s voice remains clear and strong throughout – always the teacher to her young student, despite the extraordinary circumstances.

Sex is effectively the third character in this play, always lurking beneath the surface. The lovers remember a secret tryst in a graveyard, one of the few places they might kiss in relative safety. Layla flirts with Nur, demands he take off his shirt, and even brings him to orgasm. With every mention of sex, though, comes the spectre of death. In the cruel context of Sobol’s play, the one cannot exist without the other.