Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Land of the Dead / Helter Skelter - The Bush Theatre

In a recent article for the Guardian, trenchant American playwright Neil LaBute made the startling claim that “most writers are pussies”. He went on to ask of his audience: “Let us know that if we are brave enough to write about the stuff that matters, then you'll come and watch... when I sit down and put pen to paper, I can promise to write about a subject of some importance, and to do so with honesty and courage.” Well, if Land of the Dead and Helter Skelter represent the stuff that matters - subjects of some importance - we might as well all go home now.

Land of the Dead offers two intercut monologues, of a woman going for an abortion and her partner going to work. The woman gets the abortion, the man phones and says she needn’t go through with it and then some terrorists fly a plane into his office in the World Trade Center. And that’s that. I would apologise for spoiling the plot, but thanks to LaBute’s article noting that Land of the Dead is about 9/11 and the design of the set being heavily suggestive of the WTC’s exterior combined with the New York skyline, it is obvious within two minutes exactly what is going to happen. After that it just becomes a matter of sitting and waiting for the trite to hit the fan.

Helter Skelter also builds up to the most obvious conclusion since, well, Land of the Dead. As soon as the wife figure walks in with an enormous pregnancy, in a bright, white dress and sits at a table ostentatiously laid with steak knives, and her cheating husband pleads: “Will you stop? Please? [...] I do not want this becoming some... big... thing here, OK? One of those Greek dramas” we know exactly where this is going. We already know all about LaBute’s Greek tragedy fixation from his earlier monologue sequence, Bash, here he seems to be offering us his Medea Redux redux.

However, LaBute trades brilliantly on this mounting apprehension. The dialogue between the betrayed wife and her faithless husband is an object lesson in creating tension. The husband’s increasingly hopeless evasions as the wife demands to see his phone to check the last dialled number are unflinchingly precise. Every time the situation seems like it has nowhere left to go dramatically, a new difficulty arises, while all the time the certainty of a sudden and bloody conclusion hangs over the audience, making it almost impossible to keep watching at times. Toward the end both parties become increasingly, impossibly, verbose - the husband’s final speech is so packed with reassuring platitudes that the thought briefly occurs that he could be standing for the emptiness of modern American political rhetoric. Although, given what follows, this seems unlikely.

The writing in both pieces is admirable and tightly constructed, but are we seriously being told that this is the “stuff that matters”? After all, apart from the Grand Guignol finale, the piece is little more than a particularly tense vignette from a typical Adultery In NW3 drama. Does the play communicate anything beyond the narrow rat-run of the narrative? Not really. It is ironic that, in a week when a man has gone on trial for attempting to kill himself and his two children in similar circumstances, Helter Skelter feels so utterly removed from human behaviour. Worse, though, is the potentially invidious comparison that Land of the Dead appears to invite between abortion and the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. Yes, there is some nice iconoclastic crackle in the use of images - Helter Skelter, as well as describing the feel of the piece perfectly, also references the mention made of Charles Manson's murder of the pregnant Sharon Tate - but ultimately these two nasty little playlets achieve precious little.

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