Written for CultureWars.org.uk
Martin Crimp's new play, The City, opens with Chris and Clair (Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan), a comfortably off, young, middle-class couple talking about their respective days. Chris is slightly worried because North America are restructuring their division and such upheavals often spell similar rounds of redundancies over here. Clair has a more interesting tale. She was on Waterloo station when a man asked her she had seen his daughter. She had. The girl, dressed in a pair of pink jeans was being led away from the station by a woman dressed in what looked like a nurses uniform under a coat. The man, it turns out, was a writer, Mohammed, who had been tortured in an unnamed country before escaping to Britain to become a best-selling literary recluse.
It's classic Crimp territory all in one scene: the operations of capitalism, the ever-present children, the constant awareness of the wider world and the stark descriptions of torture. The language, too, is classic Crimp: staccato, brisk, self-interrupting. Even the names – Clair, Bobby – resonate from earlier plays. In the second scene Chris and Clair are in their Garden – at least, there is now a strip of turf running down one side of the Vicky Mortimer's Spartan white-box set. The doorbell rings. It is a nervy woman dressed in a nurses uniform under a coat. She explains, hesistantly, that she is called Jenny and that she lives in the flats opposite Chris and Clair's garden and that their children are keeping her awake when they play in the garden. The air of slight dislocation, of fracture and menace, that was present in the first scene is ratcheted up several notches. The recurrence of the nurses uniform under the coat, the slightly threatening way to which the children are referred, and most of all, Jenny's jumpiness make for an unsettling time. Jenny seems petrified of Chris, as if there is some unspoken fear of violence from him, perhaps from men in general.
From here the play continues to build, with the tension and genuine spookiness becoming more and more pronounced. One of the couple's children turns up, first dressed in a nurses uniform under a coat, and then wearing a pair of pink jeans. Jenny returns, wearing precisely the same pink jeans outfit. The stories that Chris and Clair tell one another seem to become confused and intertwined. Anecdotes seem to take on physical form in subsequent scenes, like the way that in dreams events of the preceding day will re-emerge in a totally different context.
The performances are quite remarkable. Cumberbatch and Morahan talk and react to one another with the sharpness, intensity and focus of duelists, while Amanda Hale's Jenny manages to be at once frightened and frightening, at one point rolling on the couple's lawn in slow motion like something out of a David Lynch film – at once inexplicable and deeply unnerving. Whichever child actor it was I saw (the cast rotates between Matilda Castrey and Ruby Douglas) was also excellent, delivering a series of increasingly disturbing limericks and lurching revelations with an eerie calm. Sound designer par excellence Gareth Fry has created another magically subtle soundscape with the sounds within scenes barely audible (at one point Jenny's previously mentioned piano-playing barely breaks the silence of the room) while filling the blackouts with nightmares of tangled voices and white noise.
The final focus pull in the last scene appears to alter the course of the play entirely. However, it could equally be argued that it simply adds another inconclusive layer onto the play's already kaleidoscopic structure. The way that the piece delights in thwarting expectations – hinting at both child abuse and adultery within this troubled relationship, but refusing to confirm either – needn't be entirely dismissed by the play's final revelation, but nor would it matter if it were. The very concept of a desolate bombed-out city becoming the symbol of a writer's broken mind is pregnant with both Adorno's “no poetry after Auschwitz” and Amis's somewhat less convincing echo of the same in the wake of 9/11. Both seem entirely possible in the huge world that Crimp's play encompasses, passing from suburbia to secret war in the flash of a sentence. This is literary conjuring at its most convincing treated to an outstanding production. The City is at once intricate, enormous, and quite, quite brilliant.