Monday, 15 May 2017

A Decade of Postcards: My Child – Royal Court, London, 2007


It’s the Fifteenth of May 2017. I’ve just got back from nine days at Theatertreffen in Berlin, and what I’m really looking forward to doing is watching Mike Bartlett’s episode of Doctor Who and then King Charles III, both on BBC iPlayer.

So, the coincidence is too much. If Attempts on Her Life was a manifestation of exactly what I wanted out of theatre, My Child was an early indication of the direction in which [some] British theatre might head in the next ten years. It also marked Mike Bartlett’s debut as a professional playwright.

As it happened, I’d first come across Mike Bartlett in Leeds, where he started as a first year just after I graduated. I’d still go back up to see people and shows, and in 2000 my friend Oli did a production of Howard Barker’s Claw. He had cast a first year called Mike from the Theatre Studies department as Noel Biledew, the “Claw” of the title. As a result of this, by the time My Child opened, I’d already seen a few Mike Bartlett plays. And they were *ok*. I imagine Mike is relatively sheepish about them now too. My Child was a completely different ball game. I think some of the (quite genuine) excitement of my review was just how much Mike had knocked it out of the park with this play. After King Charles III, it perhaps seems a bit “normal,” but at the time it felt like a revolution. Credit too to Sacha Wares, who really should be far more fêted.

Yes, now I’m reading the review again, bits of it make me wince: “experimental without seeming obtuse; formally daring while never seeming arty for the sake of it.” Horrible. All today’s young bloggers leave then-31-year-old me in the starting blocks with their willingness to engage and not pretend to Telegraph-style sniffiness and stuffiness, but there we go. First drafts of history are just that, first drafts...

[posted 15/05/07]

If That Face boded well for Dominic Cooke’s new regime as artistic director of the Royal Court, then his bold decision to open Mike Bartlett’s Royal Court debut downstairs (only the third play ever to do so after Look Back In Anger and Jez Butterworth’s Mojo) confirms that promise. That Cooke then allows the auditorium to be utterly transformed into a space which works for the play, with a concurrent massive reduction of capacity, suggests that something very special is afoot at the Royal Court.

The whole building seems to have a renewed sense of purpose. The opening season of first plays by young writers has revealed a sense of real urgency. The topics covered and the politics involved have been far more wide-ranging than previously. There is an air of licence and experiment abroad. Even the bar seems more fun than it did.

The play concerns a perfectly ordinary, liberal, university-educated, early-middle-aged man with a nine-year-old son, to whom his ex-wife is gradually trying to deny him access until he snaps and abducts the child. It is a blisteringly fast, brutal machine of a play: experimental without seeming obtuse; formally daring while never seeming arty for the sake of it. The dialogue is clever, harsh, pared-down – wholly naturalistic, but smartly crafted into pulsing, relentless rhythms, while the plot displays an admirable willingness to go beyond the linear, embracing metaphorical elements and occasional meta-theatrics.

The text is well served by Sacha Wares’ snappy direction. The transformation of the Downstairs theatre into a kind of elongated tube carriage-cum-nightclub, drenched in harsh fluorescent strip lighting, keeps the entire cast trapped in the same small auditorium as the audience throughout the play. Actors suddenly emerge from the gathered spectators. When actors are not involved in a scene, they merge back into the crowd. This happens just often enough, and unexpectedly, that everyone in the theatre starts to look like a potential member of this impressively sized cast. Scene intercuts scene with characters common to both forced to carry on two conversations. The pace is kept astonishingly rapid throughout. It is a bold aesthetic choice. Dialogue which could be played in an obvious naturalistic register is delivered with a stylised, off-hand urgency. The performances are well-observed and detailed. Ben Miles as the unnamed father does an excellent job of portraying a reasonable man trying to suppress his understandable rage, while Lia Williams as his ex-wife manages to maintain our sympathy while being utterly poisonous to her dejected ex. Also excellent is Adam Arnold as the son; far and away the best British child-actor I have seen on stage.

What really distinguishes My Child from any number of similar soap storylines and true life magazine narratives is the way Bartlett uses this simple story to present a ferocious attack on the failure of what used to be considered ‘lefty’ principles – in the sense of nice, Guardian-reading, politically correct, polite, community-minded, kind and ‘good’; at the same time offering a devastatingly bleak view of the sheer nastiness that can evolve between parents in a failed relationship, contemporary consumer culture’s emptiness, and the amorality of modern children. It is perhaps no coincidence that the titular child of the play would have been conceived at roughly the time that Tony Blair took office in 1997.

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