Saturday 14 July 2007

Royal Court - Rough Cuts II

Posh / The Girlfriend Experience

The second offering in the Royal Court’s promising Rough Cuts season is another pairing of two works-in-progress, this time both first halves of longer plays rather than fragments – this week looked to be full-first-draft week – from the writer Laura Wade, in collaboration with director Lyndsay Turner and the company Recorded Delivery. As it turns out, where the first Rough Cuts night stood out for the vast differences between the two pieces on show, this double bill is notable for the many unexpected congruencies which spring up between the pieces. If this was not at least partially deliberate, then it was certainly fortuitous. Indeed, one of the impressions I was left with was that it was a pity that the two pieces would subsequently be being developed in isolation and shown separately since they had worked so brilliantly in tandem.

What they were about was, at root, class (well, class and sex in the case of the latter).

There are probably still a million books to be written on why class continues to exercise such a peculiar hold over the imaginations of the English. And those books will, of course, be devoured in their thousands because, as I say, the English just can’t get enough of it. So I’ll try not to dwell on that question here.

First up was the putative first half of Laura Wade’s new play Posh. Starting as an inquiry into the lives of the moneyed classes who live in the immediate environs of the Sloane Square theatre (one senses the commissioning hand of the Artistic Director’s mission statement), the brief introduction to the piece explains that this brief quickly led to a fascination with the secret Oxbridge drinking and dining societies, such as are now regularly detailed by outraged articles in the Daily Mail centering on pictures of a young David Cameron/Boris Johnson/George Osborne wearing floppy fringes and expensive togs.

We meet our hero attempting to tap his godfather for enough money to cover the damage that he and his friends – members of The Rioteers (I couldn’t help imagining The Riot Group for some reason), essentially an exclusive gang dedicated to upper class vandalism. As his tale unfolds, his godfather becomes more and more disenchanted with his young charge – the problem? The damage described simply wasn’t extensive or flamboyant enough. So the godson is sent off with a bee in his ear about doing something to restore proper hell-raising to the club. From here we see the club plan greater excesses (ten bird roasts, prostitutes under their tables, chartered flights to Lebanon...), although, rather like Britain’s latest round of terrorists, the planned destruction doesn’t really come off. There is an intriguing scene later (which I very much hope continues as a strand through the play) when the hero appears to be speaking, in similar circumstances to those at the start, with a long-dead ancestor who was once a member of the Rioteers – a sort of George Etherege/Lord Rochester figure (cf. The Libertine) – who is similarly disappointed by these bungling aristos’ attempts at carnage. The whole thing builds up to a situation where, following another attempt at hell-raising, the club are caught, arrested and told by college authorities that one of their number is to be sent down as an example, and that they have an hour to decide. The scene is closed by a rousing speech by one of the club who discourses like Harry V outside Harfleur on his hatred of the poor.

In fairness, Wade picks his targets well. If his coda were not that he blames the poor, then the lengthy list of targets for opprobrium would probably strike chords left, right and centre in varying degrees – reality TV, dumbing-down, people who keep cheese in the fridge, etc.

Of course, Wade has not written a Right Wing Play on the subject. Hell, apart from the actual club members themselves, very few of The Right actively condone this sort of behaviour, even if they tacitly endorse the privilege which creates it. Even the Telegraph will tut-tut when the Bullingdon boys run amok and trash another out-of-town restaurant, and it - at an informed guess - has the highest proportion of ex-club members, Old Etonians, &c. on its staff.

That said, she has not peopled the club solely with upper class caricatures – although some of the minor characters firmly occupy such territory. The boys are accorded a certain amount of nobility in amongst their ignoble carryings on. But then it would be illogical to create a play in which the audience was repelled utterly by all of the characters all of the time. Instead we are given what could well be reasonably acute depictions and left to worry about our allegiances. It is also interesting to consider that Wade is trading heavily on the mythology and glamour that surrounds those old public schools even at the same time as seeming to implicitly deplore a certain strata of their alumni. It will be very interesting to see how the rest of the play develops this material. Here’s hoping for a speedily written second half and a full production early next year.

- Interval -

In complete contrast, Recorded Delivery’s The Girlfriend Experience is a verbatim show consisting of taped scenes from an independent Bournemouth brothel. It has been set up by ____ who, tired of working for other madams and pimps, has struck out on her own along with her friend ___. Unlike most depictions of prostitutes/sex workers/call-them-what-you-will both are in their forties and at the upper end of the dress size register. What we get in the first forty-five minutes is both straight-to-audience/interviewer explanations of various aspects of the job, and interactions between the women.

It is almost as if the piece’s creator, Alecky Blythe, has stumbled across a perfect piece of tape-your-own-Beckett or Pinter, with added social commentary and relevance. There is plenty of humour here, as the women discuss their working lives, but also an overarching feeling of desolation. I was reminded of a comment made by one of the characters in Dennis Kelly’s recent pseudo-Verbatim show Taking Care of Baby – she is describing the way that life-sentence prisoners in a women’s prison spoke to one another, they are all, she notes, people who have committed horrific crimes – but they spend the whole time talking to each other in little-girl voices. I don’t know where Kelly got that observation from or whether he made it up, but the same happens here – everything is kept light – there is a constant level of enforced jollity, as if no one really wants to face what they are doing – at least not in their moment-to-moment interactions. At the same time, however, the interviews are disarmingly forthright and frank, and don’t given the impression that these women either feel sorry for themselves or seek our sympathy. And yet that sympathy is terrifically hard to let go of. A scene close to the end, in which the two women are sitting watching TV, waiting for the phone to ring with a client, is incredible theatre. We know they need the money, we can see they are bored, and so we both want the phone to ring, but at the same time can’t help feeling that maybe it would be better if they didn’t have to have sex with men for money. It is amazingly powerful stuff, like a staging of Godot in the middle of a relativist’s moral quagmire.

Posted from work, so apologies to readers who catch this before I’ve had a chance to check the programmes and put in the names/details/facts I’ve forgotten, and any links I might add.

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