Thursday 6 December 2007

The Family Plays: a double bill - Royal Court

The Royal Court's final offering in its largely excellent international season (Kebab excepted) offers a double bill of one Swedish and one Ukrainian play. Clocking in at one hour fifteen, including a fifteen minute interval, this is theatre-going at its most relaxed.

Adding to this impression of ease, the Court's Theatre Upstairs has been totally repainted in a restful, breakfast-room shade of yellow; wooden flooring has been installed throughout and the audience is seated around the edge of the space, with bright lighting left on continually throughout both plays. Indeed, so relaxing is the ambience that Wednesday's press night felt not unlike an end of term party.

Swedish writer Joakim Pirinen’s The Good Family, does nothing to spoil this convivial atmosphere. Indeed, the dramatic action is conviviality itself. The play shows us an evening in the life of what must be the first truly happy family to ever feature on stage. Everything about their life together is perfect. The parents are both happily employed in interesting jobs. They also find time to write plays and poems, while enjoying an enormous love and respect for one another and a happy, passionate sex life. Their two children both adore their parents and each other, are doing well at school, and are both founding mature, happy, supportive relationships of their own.

The piece plays a game of building tension and expectation. At every turn the audience waits for the piece of bad news, shock or offence that is going to bring this perfect edifice crashing down until the expectation becomes almost palpable. Will it be the game of dice, the joke the mother tells, the phone call from outside, one of the presents given to the daughter on her birthday, or the son's sudden piece of revelatory news?

What is most interesting about the production is how just plain weird it is seeing four English actors trying to portray plain, uncomplicated, un-ironic happiness. First we look for the creeping subtext of incest or abuse, then laugh at the absurdity of the O.T.T. demonstrative affection before finally starting to worry that maybe other countries really have worked out how to be happy without being barbed, ironic or reserved. Of course, the point of the play is to satirise both ideas of Sweden as a liberal paradise and the lies told about Western capitalism, but over its course, it also becomes a powerful and worrying meditation on happiness and how little we actually accept it.

The Khomenko Family Chronicles by Ukrainian Natalia Vorozhbit is altogether a more depressing affair, opening as it does, with a ten-year-old boy - bald from chemotherapy - lying on a grimy hospital bed. He is visited by his pregnant mother and his apparently brutish father. It quickly becomes clear to the audience, if not the parents, that the child's disease is more than likely connected to the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, and that he is almost certainly going to die. The unborn child in his mother's womb is likely to suffer a similar fate. In spite of these depressing circumstances, the family turns out to be a strong and surprisingly robust unit. This resilience is partly undermined by the grim irony of their situation - with the parents drinking themselves into bed largely on occasions of national and international disaster - the son was conceived on 9/11, the unborn daughter during a recent anti-government coup.

At the close of the play, the son removes the drip from his arm and steps off the stage into the audience to recount a strange dream-like sequence which could signify either his death or simply a nightmare. The performance by the small, shaven-headed ten-year-old, Lewis Lempureur-Palmer, is quite extraordinary. The moment totally transforms the piece from a slice of fairly interesting naturalistic business into something far stranger and more metaphorical; elegiac almost. While it doesn’t perhaps pack quite the emotional punch that such a moment could, it is nonetheless haunting and beautiful, bringing a strange ending to an unexpectedly thought-provoking evening.

No comments: