Written for CultureWars.org.uk
There seems to be a growing fashion for brevity in theatre. Marius von Mayenburg’s new play, which opens the Royal Court’s new season of international writing, clocks in at around 55 minutes. It is a model of concision with not an ounce of fat to be found anywhere in the script. Ramin Gray’s production sets the action on a bare stage flanked by three of the Theatre Upstairs’ leather and burlap benches, artfully littered with backstage detritus – here a step ladder, there a power-drill - all scattered as if left by some recalcitrant stage crew who are yet to make good on their promise of a set. The space’s house lights are left on throughout the action, supplemented by rudimentary additional lighting on the stage.
The play itself is much concerned with appearances: Lette (Michael Gould) is a successful engineer who has designed a new sort of plug. He should be going to a conference to deliver a paper on the product, but his boss, Scheffler, informs him that his face is “unacceptable” and that his colleague Karlmann will be doing the presentation. Lette is surprised. He’d never realised. He goes home to his wife, Fanny. She confirms that he is indeed “unspeakably ugly”. He is perturbed. He goes to a plastic surgeon – also called Scheffler – and demands reconstructive surgery. The effects of the surgery and their subsequent effects should probably remain a surprise. Suffice it to say that the surgery has a profound effect on the quality of Lette’s life, and the play becomes a fascinating meditation of the effects of one’s appearance – like four or five different morality parables running in tandem.
One of the most appealing aspects of the production is the almost rehearsed-reading style employed. The four actors are costumed only insofar as they wear shirts appropriate to their characters. There are no props. They spend quite a bit of time sitting ranged on the benches while Lette whizzes between them on a wheeled office chair. The delivery and dialogue, while not exactly deadpan, is understated and rapid. Thanks to the wholesale binning of any pretence at “realism” the actors switch characters in an instant. Aside from Gould, the other three actors - Mark Lockyer (Scheffler), Frank McCusker (Karlmann) and Amanda Drew (Fanny) – each play another couple of characters, who in each case have the same name. If this sounds like a recipe for total confusion, von Mayenburg’s script deals deftly with any such worries, using the sudden flicking between scenes as a clever device to jolt the audience like a train going over a set of points. Gray has assembled a first-rate cast who are a pleasure to watch. Gould – who ironically has a lovely, watchable face – manages to suggest changes of a man’s whole temperament with the barest hints of a smile here, a frown there, the terrifically enjoyable Mark Lockyer turns in a series of very funny studies of the self-satisfied, while the intangible transformations which Amanda Drew uses to essay the difference between a foxy housewife and a 78-year-old nymphomaniac plutocrat are quite astonishing.
If the play has a weak point, then one could point to a slightly unconvincing “madness”/split-personality scene, but this is passed over so quickly that it should scarcely be allowed to matter. It weakens von Mayenburg’s thesis slightly – if a thesis is intended – concerning the meaning of the face, but generally speaking the play puts forward only interesting and occasionally provocative ideas at such a break-neck pace that it becomes difficult to even process them, let alone dwell on the ideas raised.
It might seem premature to bracket this, along with Mike Bartlett’s recent Royal Court hit My Child, as part of a new movement in playwriting which has learnt lessons from the best recent television – hour-long shows, plunging the audience straight into the action without lengthy set-ups, rapid cutting between scenes – and re-made it as a thoroughly theatrical medium that adds the positive virtue of unapologetic presence and liveness. This production’s glorious lack of even costume, lighting, sound or set changes underlines such an approach – reasserting theatre’s potential for immediacy.
Incidentally, does anyone know anything about the poster design (above)? It is credited to Jeremy Herbert, but really reminds me of some (I think) 1930s, (I think) German surrealist art. Either way, I like it an awful lot.