Monday, 6 May 2013

Unsent Postcards: If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep – Royal Court

[sat on my hands on this one too. Rather wish I hadn’t now]

There a mismatch between Anders Lustgarten’s rhetoric and the latest play he’s written. Having read the recent interview in the Evening Standard, I went in expecting (and hoping for) the theatrical equivalent of a Crass album. In the event, the play Lustgarden has written is deeply conservative, both formally and politically. Similarly, Simon Godwin’s “production without decor” rather undermines itself: firstly by having décor, and secondly by feeling more like a sulk than a production:“If you don’t give me a play, I won’t make a production” it seems to shrug.

The play is divided into two parts. The first, of ten scenes, might be subtitled: Scenes From Our Undoing, and features a series of One-Dimensional Men and Women bluntly explaining their miseries to even less developed secondary characters in a privatised near-future Britain. The second, which could be titled: Scenes From Our Redemption, is a single 32 page scene set in an “activist” “Court of Public Opinion”, in which several activist characters explain everything that Anders Lustgarten thinks through the clever dramatic device of being several characters who all think the same things that Anders Lustgarten thinks, saying those things to each other: excitedly and earnestly.

There are more problems though: while Lustgarten’s politics may be serious and unimpeachable, his imagination isn’t. Lettuce Dream attempts to be a dystopian satire, but its inventions just aren’t sharp enough. As Stewart Pringle has already pointed out, given that the situation *right now* is an obscenity, why bother making up badly thought-out extras? But if you’re going to make-up extras, then they should be better than these: a government dept. called:“Department of Home and Business Affairs”, a hedge fund called “Empathy Capital”, a private security/prison service called “Competitive Confinement”, a new tax called “Debt Tax”.

Then there are the characters. Who have no interior lives whatsoever. They exist solely to illustrate their bit of the social milieu. There are the aforementioned business types, who wear suits and talk about business. There is Joan, who explains to “Workman” that she was “42 years a nurse. Looking after people”, who refuses to pay her debt tax because she “didn’t cause it” and remembers “Fought a war for this. Fought a war for our rights... Not the Germans. After that. A war against our lot. The elite.” Yes. Those words were actually spoken – without irony – in a British theatre this year.

There’s Ryan, a student who seems to have been caught up in some looting, to whom “Man” is explaining a bunch of stuff about how privatised justice works and, y’know, being a cardboard cut-out nasty police explaining man. Then there are Jason and Ross, two of Ryan’s friends in “A Wetherspoon’s in a satellite town” (*a* satellite town. They could be anyone. Those places. You know.) who spend four pages articulating why young unemployed white men might think racist things.

So, there’s a choice between nameless functionary of the state, or named functionary of Lustgarten’s social analysis. I don’t remember giving the slightest fuck about any of them, and I didn’t get the impression Lustgarten wanted me to (or Godwin either for that matter). Not for Brechtian reasons of Verfremsdung-ing, nor to refuse the bourgeois comforts of identification, but simply because he doesn’t seem to give much of a fuck about these people either. Or rather, he cares about their plights, and so it is just their plights that are articulated. Which doesn’t really amount to drama. Indeed, it barely amounts to the level of characterisation present in a corporate training video. And there are too few jokes, and zero poetry to leaven this deadness.

Given these meagre scraps to work with, the cast actually put up a sterling defence, at least of their own abilities to act. We come away with credible performances of unspeakable lines. And, yes, as other commentators have noted, it’s nice to see Ferdy Roberts playing another policeman.

Presumably Simon Godwin can take some of the credit for that, which is a good job, as the rest of the “without decor” concept is about a sloppily handled as it is possible to imagine. For a start, a massive scaffolding tower which I think at one point even has a door attached to it, isn’t “without decor”. Ramin Grey’s The Ugly One, designed by Jeremy Herbert, did “decor without decor” beautifully, and actually taking everything away also counts, but having the stage strewn with costumes and the other stuff of naturalism isn’t really “without decor” is it? Also, why have the Royal Court flagged up the "without decor" thing so much? Do Sloane Sqaure audiences now regularly demand their money back if there isn’t a lovingly-crafted naturalistic replica of the inside of some posho’s house? Plausibly some, I suppose. It’s bad enough for them that there’s this “playwright” telling them all to go fuck themselves, without having to suffer the additional indignity of having to imagine the rooms in which the characters who are telling them to go fuck themselves are standing.

So I was bored, yes. But worse, I was deeply irritated. I was irritated by the way that we the audience were being sold all this as “insight” as “a revelation”. As if Anders Lustgarten believes he’s the first person who’s written a play suggesting that capitalism isn’t the way forward – indeed, Lustgarten removes all trace of doubt that this is his opinion in his unbelievably condescending three page intro to the script, which concludes: “I wrote it to make you feel, and therefore think. I hope it worked.” As is evident from this review, I *felt* irritated, therefore *thought* it wasn’t a great play. But, flippancy aside, what a monstrously arrogant thing to say about one’s audience. To have a baseline assumption that, in our day-to-day lives, we are unfeeling and unthinking, and need fucking Lustgarten to show us some stuff we couldn’t have ever possibly felt or therefore thought for ourselves.

There’s a near-constant accusation that political theatre preaches to the choir. This commits a worse sin – of assuming that the choir has never even been to church before. There is *nothing* in this play for anyone with the slightest social conscience or feeling of opposition to the current government. There are a few factoids thrown into the Activist Saviours section, but even these are familiar. There are the portraits of the country on its knees, which we already live in.

But it’s the fact that it’s so dramatically meagre that really grates. Not only are we being told nothing new – or, if it is new to some audience members, being presented with it in such an unconvincing form that they’d be well within their rights to shoot the messenger – but that it’s being told in such a way as to play right into the hands of anyone who does assert that explicitly political theatre is A Bad Thing or that it preaches to the choir, or that it won’t change a single mind will have all their prejudices confirmed here.

So, to recap: this sort of thing – in principle – could be good. But this is a very bad example of a potentially good thing.  Just don't ever do it this badly again, please. 

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