Love and Other Acts of Violence is an audaciously jagged creation. It begins as a recognisable romance – girl meets boy at a noisy party – but quickly becomes unfamiliar: first a story of love under a non-specified, seemingly contemporary fascist regime, and then a drama about Nazi-era Jewish persecution with parallels to the first part.
Cordelia Lynn’s script steers away from traditional structure, with the couple’s relationship unfolding episodically – though perhaps in too similar a way to Nick Payne’s Constellations. It is snappy and engaging, but marred by mannered interludes of enigmatic voiceovers and slow-motion movement that feel redundant and fail in their attempts at lyricism.
We only ever see the characters inside their home – which on Basia Bińkowska’s starkly designed stage is a non-realist setting of wood and earth. Cleanly directed by Elayce Ismail, the world beyond is painted in fearful or angry conversations as one of rising intolerance and authoritarianism where sexists, racists, terrorists and even feminists are named among its roiling factions.
Tom Mothersdale is Him, a gabbling poet and activist, while Abigail Weinstock is Her, an emotionally coiled physicist of Jewish descent. He is insufferably pompous at their first meeting, throwing out socialist cliches about the “capitalist consumerist hegemony” while she is rich, reserved and a bit of an intellectual snob. Mothersdale gives a vulnerable performance while Weinstock is poised, almost regal in her deliveries. An intensity is created between them but the relationship never quite convinces.
The second story, set in Nazi-occupied Poland, seems to invade this one, with an earthquake of sound (by Richard Hammarton) and lighting effects (by Joshua Pharo) that leaves the ground rumbling beneath our feet. The new story brings its own set: a drawing room, lowered from the rafters like a spacecraft landing.
Once again the outside remains unseen, but it is reported on by an elderly Jewish father (Richard Katz) and his grownup daughter (also performed by Weinstock). While this second part contains jeopardy in its portrayal of Nazi terror, it is connected rather too bluntly to the first by family history, and yet it also feels like one play latched on to another.
The drama is strongest in the work’s earlier depiction of dread and the tipping point into tyranny, the journey towards which is made in inches, from institutional betrayals to the normalisation of bigotry and brutality on the streets. The play feels overwrought and overcrowded as a whole, but has mesmerising moments and it is heroic in its endeavour to be different.
At the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 27 November