Sunday 22 December 2013

American Psycho – Almeida

[over 3000 words of anxiety and torture for you, dear reader]

The first half of this new musical of American Psycho provokes non-stop anxieties in all the wrong ways. It’s weird, I don’t remember the last time I sat in a theatre worrying about what I thought something thought it was doing so much.

[Let’s get this straight: this is going to be a pretty tough review, but it’s a tough review starting from the following position: *at last* we’re starting to see theatre in the UK which looks like it might belong to the same century as the one in which we live. Sitting with outgone Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough behind me, I was reminded that whatever I thought of this flagship production from new AD Rupert Goold, I actually wanted to be there and whatever it was it was sure as hell blowing the cobwebs out of the fucking place. And not before time. Reviewing theatre is a dumb thing. Anything less than all out adoration reads badly. Caveats and reservations seem to loom more damningly than they are ever meant to. But, blimey, celebrations for joining the current millennium aside, there are plenty of causes for reservation here.]

It’s interesting to think back and remember quite what an impact Bret Easton Ellis's novel American Psycho had when it was first published in 1991. It was one of about three novels Melody Maker *ever* reviewed. It was a book that achieved a startling level of cultural penetration. Possibly not because anyone actually *got it*, but because, even without *getting it*, there was something persistent and unsettling about it that people couldn’t just dismiss. American Psycho made people sit up and take notice primarily with its spectacular level of violence, and the deadpan, pedantic detail with which it described it. A matter-of-fact account of a broken bottle and dead rat shoved up someone’s cunt tended to be the bit everyone mentioned at the time. They don’t do that bit at the Almeida.

The reason American Psycho got further than the horror section of bookshops was what surrounded the horror – a non-stop, chippy, “inadvertently” camp commentary, listing in anal detail what he, the narrator, Patrick Bateman, was wearing. What everyone around him was wearing. *Where* they were eating. What their business cards looked like. The detail is dead-eyed, brand-led and relentless. Bateman sounds like a man who has memorised and endlessly regurgitates catalogue details, or the brittle prose of fashion magazines.

There are also (italicised? Can’t remember. It’s been a while) about three or four sections where Bateman offers lengthy (a page or two) disquisitions on his favourite music. The two most memorable ones are about Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News. He (Bateman) is totally serious. He discusses the highlights of Phil Collins’s oeuvre like it was Mozart. (Also, do I remember wrongly, or does he also do The Beatles at one point? That would have been very canny if it happens). These bits in the book are inspired. The fashion bits might also be bloody clever and funny if you happened to know all about fashion. Bateman might be absolutely correct, or he might be as laughably off-kilter with his taste in facewash and shirts as he is in music, but no one worth knowing would know – the point, I always hoped, is that name-checking *any* luxury brand approvingly makes you sound like a total cunt with no taste whatsoever.

By virtue of its one-note, relentless, dead, *boring* prose, the book manages to become literature by being so precisely the opposite. It’s art. You have to work at it. It’s not entertainment. It makes no effort to charm. And its point is buried within its pointlessness.

Adapting such a book obviously poses a number of problems; adapting it as *a musical* triply so. At the basic, conceptual level, there’s the problem that it just sounds like “a terrific wheeze”. “American Psycho – The Musical! Ha ha, brilliant!” people say. And, yeah, just the concept has whizzy, postmodern, showbiz chutzpah written all over it. In *ironic* day-glo, probably.

But then, what *are* we meant to be making of it? Sure, on one level it might boil back to that crude binary which I most recently saw raised in Michael Blakemore’s new memoir, Stage Blood: “[The Germans] seemed uneasy with what I regarded as the English-speaking theatre’s greatest strength – its refusal to draw a line between what was entertainment and what was art.” The other way this can be phrased is as the questions asked of the English by mainlanders: “Why are you so keen to pander to the audience?” “Why behave like prostitutes the whole time?” Or even, “why do you always have to make jokes? The people were listening anyway.”

Usually it’s a dichotomy I prefer to ignore (mostly by only ever watching German art theatre. ha ha), but American Psycho – The Musical is so unabashedly “entertainment”-first, that it seems worth inspecting. Except, *is it*? Is it *really* entertainment, or is it “art” *about* entertainment – a fractured sculpture of a musical rather than an actual musical? And if it was, how would you tell?

This is the first of the anxieties thrown up by the first half. You (well, *I*; but not only *I*) spend quite a lot of time worrying what it is you’re even watching. And why. A couple of reasons for this: the “musical” style is not the strange genre of its own that is exactly “musicals music”. Instead it’s mostly pastiche 80s synth pop. Except, actually, it *is* musicals music, just slightly disguised as pastiches of (mostly) Depeche Mode and the like. But then there’s the actual *action*. Light on plot in the first half, the piece mostly takes the form of an extended round of introductions. Bateman is introduced. His voracious consumerist colleagues at work (on Wall Street) are introduced. A bunch of ladies are introduced, who turn out to be mostly defined either by their relationship to Patrick Bateman, or one of his friends. Or by the way that men look at them.

[And, mother of God: God knows presenting a society objectifying women is tricky on stage, but I’m not sure AP–TM has found the solution. At. All. The slight defence for Goold is that a) he plainly knows he’s doing it and flags it up as “problematic” – mostly by doing it some more, and then over-doing it – and also, it’s a pretty equal-opportunities objectification free-for-all, with Matt Smith clearly leading the field (yeah, Matt Smith has his shirt off a whole lot. And Matt Smith looks pretty fucking awesome with his shirt off. (get me and my objectification)).]

The thing settles into a pattern of scene, song; scene, song; etc. pretty quickly. Then, once people have been introduced, it does feel a bit like they then start painstakingly introducing Themes, and Motifs. That the book contains so many “classic bits”, and that the book is now 22 years old, and so what it is also kinda *about* now is “hilarious” retro- fashion and technology (and, sure, iPods make Sony Walkmans look pretty funny *right now*, but...), also feels like a problem addressed but not solved.

But we should talk some more about the music. Leafing through the programme last night, I think I noticed that the writer of the music (Duncan Sheik) thought he was a big fan of Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears. Well, they had a lot of fans, and fandom plainly doesn’t translate into either understanding what makes their music good or how it works. This is yet Another (first half) Anxiety. You really can’t tell at what level you are supposed to be appreciating the music. Is it meant to be ironic? How ironic? Is it meant to actually be good? Suffice it to say, if the original music is aiming for “good” then it gets as far as “passable”/“competent”, but certainly nowhere near “memorable”. Quite a feat, given that it’s meant to be a pastiche of Depeche Mode. Surely the best thing to do would be to write songs with the same insistent, instant-ear-worm qualities, then you’d win both ways. But there’s that question of whether the music is actually meant to be cleverly reflecting the bland, godawful, corporate exterior of capitalism.

However, mercifully, there’s another strand to the music – the cast performing slightly re-orchestrated/new arrangements of popular eighties pop songs. These struck me as much cleverer and more excellent. Turning some Phil Collins into something that sounded more like impassioned soul music feels like a much better “ironic” trick. It also feels like an elegant way of dealing with the fact that this is a musical about someone whose musical tastes are fundamentally fucking awful, and, if they weren’t also a banker, a serial killer, a misogynist and a shit boyfriend, would be categorically the worst thing about them apart from their clothes. But, yes; making whatever Phil Collins (for example) song it is sound better – more “authentic” perhaps – than the original makes for a much more satisfying problematisation of the era, the musicals format, and the novel. Sometimes they also just play the original songs too. Fine. Whatevs.

What’s perhaps most fascinating about the adaptation is the extent and ways in which it conforms to – and differs from – the novel, the film. And expectation. My (dim) recollection of the book, is predominantly the relentlessness of the tone. Like this snide, American voice carping on in your head non-stop. (I imagine a younger Kevin Spacey would have done the perfect audiobook version.) What I don’t remember is it having any sort of a coherent plot, as such. Incidents would happen, sure, but it felt like they only really happened to give Bateman something to talk about. And much of the time, he would either just be telling us about *things*, or else cataloguing his fitful, ongoing murdering and torturing. The first half is a bit like this, but a strange thing happens to the sense of (un)balance. In the book you feel like Bateman is the only present being. Everyone else is only a fleeting impression on his pathological mind. Here, because that’s obviously a tricky impression to give on stage (tho’ I sort of wish they’d tried. Gotscheff’s Ivanov is, I think, the best example ever, although I don’t suggest they should just copy that). Here, *everyone* is as technicolor and *real* as Matt Smith, even if he is most famous (and it’s interesting, while his face is instantly recognisable, and while he remains the astonishing young actor I saw in That Face all those years ago, he’s not actually so very *other-worldly*. I’m reminded that “a bit strange-looking” (cf. all other reviews) though he may be, he’s a great actor precisely because he feels so relatable. It makes him an unusually compassionate Bateman. This might be a problem.).

Also, because of the way this adaptation has been made/written/structured, it feels increasingly like there is a credible plot struggling to emerge in the first half. Possibly a plot involving a 27-year-old investment banker trying to avoid getting married to his girlfriend of whom he’s evidently not all that fond. Perhaps that’s actually true of the book too if you’re a better reader than me, but my impression was of this fog of details with all the other people in it being reduced to yet another list, all so much the same, all so fogged in the pedantic details by which Bateman values things, all *dehumanised* so completely, that you, the reader, end up not seeing them as people either.

It’s a brilliant effect in the novel, but obviously one that’s much harder to reproduce in the theatre, when, as I say, we in the audience – not being psychopaths, and also not being *inside* Matt Smith’s mind as he pretends to be one as our cipher – see everyone as equally real. There’s also that problem of the lead character being unsympathetic and everyone else unsympathetic by virtue of the prose with which they’ve been drawn.

*Of course* Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has tried to negotiate a way out of this, and in the second half I think gets bloody close to succeeding. In the second half there actually is a plot of sorts. The focus shifts slightly and widens to include the crush Bateman’s secretary Jean (Cassandra Compton) has on him. In this storyline, I think Aguirre-Sacasa gets to riff much more successfully with a few tropes of his own. We’re suddenly in recognisable rom-com land, a territory much more recognisable for a musical too, and so Jean gets her torch song, and Bateman gets to have a scene where he lets her leave his apartment without killing her. This is much more interesting, because playing with clichés like these means it’s us in the audience who suddenly start wondering about ourselves (“What am I doing rooting for the guy who crucified a woman with a nail-gun?”). This is a much more profitable line of enquiry than the blunt declarations about capitalism and superficiality delivered in the first half. At last it feels like “The Musical” has swung into its own and is starting to make sense of why it’s there. Then there’s the Three Kingdoms/David Lynchian aspect to the tale, where we’re suddenly not even sure what is “Real” any more (tho’ not in the Lacanian sense, sadly), and it feels even more promising. To be honest, I could have happily taken two second halves (even if the final number is an absolutely perplexing honest-to-God trainwreck of a triple-underline. Irony or no irony. Or both.)

Oh, God. What haven’t I covered yet? More or less everything, it feels. The set, by Es “Chimerica” Devlin is a largev white room with slight false perspective potential, horizontal blinds at the back, two revolving bits of floor while let tables and chairs hove in and out of scenes with minimal(ist) fuss. The ceiling of this room *could be* like looking up at or down on the Twin Towers. But, sadly, I don’t think that’s what it’s aiming for. Unless it’s just a joke for design nerds. Onto this is frequently projected Finn Ross’s not-especially-wonderful video designs.

The cast look like English actors claiming to be “hardbody” rich Americans. They act, sing and dance well enough – in some cases excellently, but in an ensemble it’d be unfair to name names, right? (Holly James is best by a country mile. Then Cassandra Compton is also excellent.) In a piece about superficiality but playing in a theatre, it’s always difficult to know what to do with/say about how people look. Looking at the photos of Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, I was struck by the idea that he might have made a better Bateman, after all, he has his movie-star good looks confirmed by virtue of actually being an actual good-looking movie star. But, y’know, I’m all for making up the shortfall in actuality with imagination. That’s what theatre’s all about, right? Except that here it just makes everything feel that extra bit too cosy. You kind of *want* to feel more angered and terrified by the internal logic of these people’s world. You kind of want the cast to feel like they’re people as vile and superficial in those in the book. They sort of need to look like the Almeida couldn't really afford them. Instead, this feels, well, nice. Friendly. I know it’s only make believe, but this didn’t make me believe it.

Rupert Goold has been really interesting about the show, post press night, on Twitter. He says:
Surprised by some of the reviews of #americanpsycho wanting more gore, for me the story is far more Hamlet than Titus Andronicus.
#Americanpsycho dwells on the artist's inevitable inability to assimilate within society, their perpetual anxiety about presence. Not rats.
The thing about Hamlet is fascinating. Calling Bateman “an artist” even more so. To be honest, I’ve thought more about these two tweets than the entire production. It’s a shame as I used to feel like I quite *got* where Goold’s sensibility was coming from, *from the production*. Now I’m getting it off Twitter post-fact. Perhaps I’m making the mistake of coming to the production with more preconceptions about the source text than I used to go into his Shakespeares with. But then, perhaps Goold was also trying to direct a vision of the novel onto a book and music which didn’t/doesn’t wholly contain them. Still, Hamlet? An artist? In the abstract these are elegant ideas indeed. But related to Bateman? This is about as radical appropriation of a novel’s text as an attempt to sell Howard Roark as a misunderstood lefty hipster. And, as a thesis, while I think it could be made to fly with spectacular results, I don’t think there’s enough time or clarity available here – I think it’d take an hour just to clear all the baggage we all came in with – to process this thought and make us see or feel it. The idea of a “perpetual anxiety about presence”, while more discernible, I would say is a seriously perverse reading of status anxiety.

What’s fascinating about American Psycho is that it explores one of the strangest fault-lines in American culture, the one that runs jaggedly between “authenticity”, “cool”, and “success”. Bateman’s brother, Sean, is dropped in as a try-hard (and therefore not-cool) spokesperson for authenticity. While Bateman himself is, in one sense, stuck in a world where conspicuous trying-hard (gym, keeping up, fashion, etc.) is prized above all else, and yet, where the supposed prize is “being cool”. Jazz musicians at the birth of cool used to take heroin to appear more relaxed, more effortless; Bateman and co. take coke. Their battle is lost before they even start fighting, would they but know it. Depeche Mode, despite their hilarious name, were never cool, and by never being cool, are pretty cool.

I have no idea whatsoever what American Psycho – The Musical is.

[Depeche Mode’s own searing analysis of free market economics below]

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