Thursday 13 May 2010

Love the Sinner - National Theatre

[This review contains a blow-by-blow account of everything that happens in Love the Sinner. Mostly for reasons of catharsis. Traditionally this would be called a “spoiler alert”. However that would imply there’s anything to spoil]

I first saw Love the Sinner by Drew Pautz, directed by Matthew Dunster, on Sunday 4th March 2007 at Nabokov’s present : tense / four (as it was then fancifully punctuated), along with other ten minute playlets by, among others, Mike Bartlett and Joel Horwood all responding to that week’s major news story – the schism over homosexuality in the Anglican Church. It was unusual for this sort of event in that it had a cast of ten (including playwright Dennis Kelly, fact fans), and I seem to remember it being a pretty intelligent piece of work.

Love the Sinner by Drew Pautz, directed by Matthew Dunster mkII has neither brevity nor intelligence to recommend it.

Put simply, this is a spider diagram, not a play.

It’s still “responding to the schism in Anglican communion”, but seems torn between wanting to be a State of the Nation/s play, and a “the personal is political” play – to this end, scene one is set in what appears to be a meeting of some randomly selected members of the Anglican communion sitting in a conference suite in a hotel in Africa with the white ones being a bit grumpy that the black ones won’t just sign a thing that says everyone can basically make up their own rules for their own country as long as everyone still signs up to being in the club.

Scene two, however, jumps upstairs to one of the hotel’s bedrooms where two men stand fully clothed facing each other, as two men do when they’ve just had sex with each other. Apparently. As these two men – Michael (Jonathan Cullen) and Joseph (Fiston Barek) – just have. According to their dialogue. Having established this, they then have a conversation which runs quickly from the implausibly instrumental to barking hysteria. Joseph na├»vely demands that Michael take him back to Britain with him. Michael demurs in just about the least convincing ways possible – to the extent that one starts to wonder whether this isn’t actually a really interesting bit of experimental writing/non-naturalistic theatre. They then fall to fighting.

Scene three – all the scene changes, by the way, take place behind some enormous blinds which close at the end of every scene and then stay closed for the minute or so while mobile chunks of wall section in Anna Fleischle’s unnecessarily changeable set are trundled back and forth – takes us back to England where Michael and his wife Shelly (Charlotte Randle) pace around their Karlstad armchairs worrying about squirrels in their attic, his extra bible reading these days since he came back from Africa (yes, the underlining feels like it’s there in the play too), and the fact that she’s 39 and they haven’t even had a single baby yet.

This goes on and on. Then there’s an interval. The mineral water is nice.

Scene four. Jesus. Scene four is set in Michael’s place of work. He owns a company that makes envelopes. Envelopes are getting phased out by the modern world. The audience collectively pats itself on the back for intelligently grasping this clever parallel between sending letters and believing in Jesus Christ both being replaced by email which is more popular, easy, modern and civilised. In this scene Michael displays all the signs of a guilty Christian man – poor business sense, a sudden inability to function at any level in the workplace, and sudden and complete inability to judge how to behave appropriately in front of other people; breaking out into evangelical Christian shouting during a meeting. Then his wife turns up and tells him that Joseph from scene two has turned up at their house very early in the morning throwing stones at their window. Michael responds to this first with a lot of acting. And then by taking all his clothes and most of his wife’s clothes off. Except her skirt. Because Christian wives keep their skirts on during sex, of course.

The scene ends. Much of the (predominantly grey-haired) audience giggle and discuss the nudity.

The next scene is set in the basement (no, not crypt. It’s a very modern church) of Michael’s Church where Joseph is now living. He is discovered by the bishop/archbishop(?) Stephen (Ian Redford) and his twitchy aide Daniel (Scott Handy) – yes, all the “church” characters have New Testament names and all the non-church characters have “English” names (Bill, Harry, Shelly and, uh, Dave, which is obviously Old Testament, but never mind); none of which seem to usefully map onto their characters, although I’m sure some spurious significance could easily be grafted in, making the whole thing seem both more programmatic and more specious simultaneously.

Joseph is discovered topless, with his back to the audience, so we can see the scars on his back from the *savage* beating he has received in return for his transgression with Michael. Then Michael turns up and it’s a bit awkward for a bit; there’s a bunch of people upstairs in the church, the church is still all conflicted about its gay issues. And we’re in England. Where illegal immigration is also frowned on. Often by those who aren’t awfully big on homosexuality, we’re reminded. There’s a lot of talk about “forgiveness” and at the end Joseph walks up the stairs at the rear of the stage toward the light of the large stained glass cross, while Michael falls to his knees in prayer to the swelling of a nice hymn being sung.

And there we have it.

I’m not sure precisely what it was about this play that I found so objectionable. Sure, there’s plenty to object to. Indeed, it’s one of those plays where as a white, heterosexual Englishman, I could have spent most of my time taking offence on behalf of black people – the African contingent are largely portrayed as child-like, simplistic, dogmatic savages; homosexuals – well, there are only two and neither of them even seem that interested in each other; and women – there’s only one who has more than three lines, and she mostly gets to be hysterical and talk about babies.

Which only leaves me the portrayal of Christianity. Which I’m pretty sure couldn’t offend anyone. Sure it’s terribly done – imagine for a minute an episode of The Wire where no one knew anything about either police work or drug dealing; that’s what the stuff about the church is like in Love the Sinner is like. But it’s not offensive to Christians half so much as it is to dramatists.

Beyond that it all gets a whole lot more mucky. By starting the play in Africa, by having all the objections to homosexuality raised by African representatives, Love the Sinner – without exploring anything about the Anglican church in Africa – winds up looking awful condescending to say the least. Of course, this is a reflection of the way the issue is portrayed in the British media. Tolerance to homosexuality seems to have been picked up as the new gospel which “more civilised” nations are obliged to take to Africa, just as the original missionaries spread the word of God. It’s embarrassing to see it portrayed so starkly and with so little nuance here.

There’s precious little in this play that examines this phenomenon. Instead we have a narrative which basically proposes that Fatal Attraction has much to say about modern Anglicanism. Or, more simply, a play that appears to try to make the sensible observation: “if you’re married and trying for children, don’t sleep around when you go to conferences, lying isn’t healthy or nice, and has a nasty habit of catching up with you” into a metaphor for the schism in the church. You can sort of see why, but it’s not a terribly good idea, and worse, it falls into that nasty trap for “personal as political” plays, where as a consequence of the enormous load placed on the narrative, the story can’t just function as a story, the characters become symbols of nations and ideologies instead of just people, so that the human angle doesn’t work, while the politics acquire ludicrous simplifications and downright weird character traits.

Beyond this, it’s a play about faith that’s seemingly set in a Godless world (I mean that quite literally – nothing in this play suggests for a moment that even the characters on stage believe that God exists). Even that makes it sound more interesting than it is.

Really, though, beyond the crassness of the instrumental plotting, the first-idea-that-popped-into-your-mind characters and scenarios, it’s the remarkable lack of skill with which the thing is made that really crucifies it. If the dialogue is meant to be accurate, then it fails absolutely. If it’s meant to be more textured and experimental, then it’s been handled in an awfully odd way. Similarly, the staging swings between looking like it’s meant to be ultra realistic and strangely allegorical/metaphorical and winds up looking like it just doesn’t know what it’s meant to be doing.

Even that needn’t be have been a problem (but was). Acutely aware of how much I was hating the play, I did try to interrogate my responses. I didn’t want to decide what the play should have done and then condemn it for not doing it, or not doing it well. There’s nothing worse than a review which watches a play and then tells it off for not fulfilling a brief it wasn’t attempting.

But Love the Sinner isn’t clear at all what it wants to do and with each new scene feeling even more inevitable than the last – and with the heavy-handed symbolism of scenarios and lines clanging ever more heavily – whatever it’s trying to be, it is an obvious play that says nothing intelligent and one which uses an unbearably trite narrative to do so. No one says anything clever, moving, profound, honest or even convincing. The situation is silly. This is neither art nor journalism; human interest nor theology. And it’s pretty lousy drama and stagecraft to boot.

Still, it is also a two and a half hour advert for forgiveness (possibly), so we probably shouldn’t hold it against anyone.


Orion Hunt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Orion Hunt said...

Hmm, not sure what happened with that comment there.

I was similarly baffled by the post-citues scene, and spent most of my review trying to figure out the logistics. I'm pretty sure that's not good critical procedure.