Tuesday 10 October 2017

Victory Condition – Royal Court, London

[seen 09/10/17]

Chris Thorpe’s Victory Condition is brilliant. It’s such a simple idea that I’m staggered it hasn’t been done before now.

The action of the play is this: a couple arrive back at their quite nice flat after a short holiday (weekend break?) with their little wheelie suitcases. They open their post (a new computer game from Amazon); they open a bottle of white, airport Marks and Sparks wine; they discover they’ve run out of fish fingers and order a pizza via some app on their iPad; he puts on the computer game; she takes a shower. His little guy runs about on screen killing wizards or something, the flat fills with steam from the shower. The pizzas arrive. The couple sit down and eat the pizzas and drink a bit more of their warm white wine.

While they do this, however, the man and the woman are each narrating a completely different person’s point of view. In this version, the man (Jonjo O’Neill) is telling us about his position as a regime sniper looking out over a square where there’s an anti-regime protest. For a few chillingly prescient minutes, it could just as easily have been about Las Vegas. Hell, it might still be Las Vegas, a few years from now. But for now it’s probably Syria, or Ukraine, or Egypt. Etc. Etc. Those places. Those reassuringly far away places. A long way from this flat. And from this couple. And from their easily obtained app-ordered pizzas. The woman (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is telling us a more fractured story, a story about being some sort of advertising executive, or designer (I think. I don’t really understand semi-proper jobs), who is both at their office and imagining having a brain haemorrhage on the platform of an underground station. At one point she describes the logo on a can of fizzy pomegranate juice. Which is a little bear with a rapier. The can seems to be scattered throughout these realities, like how something you saw during the day recurs in a weird context your dream that night. At another point, it seems like she is speaking for a child who is imprisoned in a bathroom – perhaps in another part of the city not too far from the advertising company, from this flat. The child has been imprisoned in the bathroom so she can be sexually abused. And everything else we hear about might be in her imagination. Possibly even the flat we’re looking at. But at the same time, they’re completely accurate imaginations*.

That’s the mechanical description of what happens.

[It’s really beautifully directed and designed by Vicky Featherstone and Chloe Lamford, btw. There’s not an elegant way to talk about it, but the attention to detail in the *visible reality* part of the show is *so good*, both on the level of how O’Neill and Duncan-Brewster interact with each other, and on the level of *their things.* I don’t remember the last time I saw a naturalistic play so well done, let alone a supernaturalist play like this. I mean, by the time one of them got the Flora out of their small fridge, I think I knew everything it was possible to know about this couple. I mean that wholly admiringly.]

But what actually happens is more complicated than that. There should be a handy pre-agreed term for theatre that operates on the synapses like this. Chris Thorpe’s plays do it a lot. Simon Stephens’s Wastwater did it, Rita Kalnejais’s This Beautiful Future does it, Nina Segal’s Big Guns... It’s theatre that you move through in your mind, receiving continual new information about the situation you’ve been asked to imagine. And the new information radically alters how you can imagine the situation. Theories and ideas seem to form and disappear like phantoms of this kind of imaginative fog you’re in. Here the seemingly neutral-but-information-loaded visual context is the perfect foil. It’s *so* grounded in recognisable (middle-class, “kidult”) reality, that the harsh descriptions of anything/everything else are at once completely alien, but also as familiar as listening to international news or documentaries about child sex slavery in the safety of your own home. With the pointed difference that you – as a member of this theatre audience – get to reflect on just how those different realities are unimaginably incompatible. It’s interesting, perhaps, that the piece doesn’t also make you [well, didn’t also make me] reflect on the further incongruity of going to a theatre in Sloane Square to undertake this sort of reflection [at least, it didn’t make me think about it until I was on the train home last night typing this]. But maybe that’s a thread we don’t want to start pulling on too hard just yet [EDIT: Ok, the published script *does* deal with that too. But, on balance, I think the stage-edit is probably wise to quit where it does]. Maybe it’s enough for now to look at this apparently quite nice, happy-seeming couple, and their (sort-of) blameless holidays abroad (let’s not think about global warming, maybe they were on Eurostar?), and the simulated violence of the computer game contrasts with the obvious tenderness and mutual support of the relationship.

Indeed, this is the actual genius of Victory Condition; it goes a step further than Sarah Kane’s Blasted, which located the seeds of the explosive violence in ex-Yugoslavia’s civil wars in the workaday racism and domestic rape and violence of an ordinary English couple. Victory Condition hints that the seeds for the savage civil/proxy wars now raging in Syria (&c.) are also located in Western work, leisure, and even kindness and comfort. It doesn’t even matter if we’re being nice to each other in that expensive hotel room in Leeds (or this nice flat in Dalston or Castlefield or wherever), us just being nice to each other also has consequences; maybe along the lines of “all the evil needs to flourish is good people just being nice to each other somewhere else,” and maybe partly in the ways that Katie Mitchell’s 10 Billion made clear. (The other dramatic touchstone I’d invoke here is several plays by Wallace Shawn, which this production also goes further than, not least in terms of finding a dramatic form with which to make the ideas really resonate.)

So, yeah, Victory Condition strikes me as a real step forward for British theatre. Granted, it’s a sort of “writer’s regietheater” (i.e. the brilliant directoral concept has been supplied by the writer, so the director is serving the text...), but in its defence a) it’s a brilliant concept, b) it gets the much-blunted ball rolling again with non-literal, completely counter-intuitive text/production relationship, and c) I daresay there *are* other ways to do it (in chorus with a whole stage-full of people in a naturalistic restaurant, maybe?) which will be discovered in subsequent productions (and doubtless a zillion -student productions which think they’ve discovered chairs and microphones for themselves... :-/ ).

Oh, and, because I hardly ever remember to say this, I should say that O’Neill and Duncan-Brewster are both really brilliant too. I mean, sure, I do think the play is very clever, and the production looks brilliant, but all that would be absolutely for shit if D-B and O’N hadn’t found a way to deliver some pretty dense poetic thought clearly, hypnotically, intelligently, compellingly, and – ultimately – hauntingly. (And all this while credibly carrying on like a couple who have just returned from a city-break with a bottle of airport wine and have had to order pizza because they’ve run out of fish-fingers... They’re bloody geniuses, people. I know we knew that about each of them already anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to say it again. Geniuses.)

But, yeah, this is about as exciting a play as I’ve seen this year in England. So, of course, it’s destined to go on that ever-lengthening list of “insanely underestimated Royal Court classics” along with everything from Blasted to Wastwater et al. And, honestly? I don’t think I can imagine a higher compliment to pay Victory Condition than this.

*I’ll refrain from mentioning Twin Peaks: The Return and its question “who is the dreamer?” from the main body of this review, but I do think that question is definitely present in Victory Condition. I don’t have any particular answer as to what it means in this context. Perhaps a close relative of the “England’s dreaming” from ‘God Save The Queen’ here?

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