Tuesday 15 January 2013

In the Republic of Happiness – Royal Court

[first review for a while. Bit of a mess]

First things first.

1) I *really* enjoyed In the Republic of Happiness, Martin Crimp’s new play at the Royal Court, directed by Dominic Cooke.

2) I saw it about a month ago now, but for previously explained reasons, had to hold off writing about it.

3) I realise it’s nearly over now, and as such this review is more for my own fun/posterity/discussion than to serve any useful economic purpose to the production. But that’s quite liberating, and pretty much always the case round here, right?

At the time, my impression was that the most discussed point about …Republic... was some variation around people’s willingness to commit to it, or buy into it. This may or may not have extended as far as people’s actual *enjoyment* of it.

On balance, I enjoyed it very much. But I’d weigh that up against the fact that throughout watching (at least in parts II and III) I was also thinking about it constantly and critically, and asking myself about the extent to which I thought Crimp was really nailing anything.

The piece is divided into three – occasioning plenty of speculation as to what this means. Structurally and spiritually. Three is, after all, one of the more *significant* numbers. I’m told Michael Billington opted for Heaven, Hell and Purgatorio (I’ve not read his review yet), and it’s true Crimp does preface the third and final part of Republic with a quote from Dante. But Past, Present and Future, like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol would be an equally possible version. Or: Point-of-Departure, Travel, Destination another.

The first part “1 THE DESTRUCTION OF THE FAMILY” opens on a family Christmas dinner. There’s Mum, Dad, Granny and Grandad and Debbie and Hazel sat round a dining room table in the Lynchian dark red wallpapered room, in growing gloom. Dad, it transpires, has taken all the lightbulbs out of the fittings because it’s expensive. Debbie is pregnant with an unplanned child whose father she cannot name. In many ways the whole scene is The Essence of Crimp (or at least one sort of Crimp. The one who wrote Dealing With Clair, The Country and The City). The dialogue, the mordant sense of humour about a situation, the unexpected swearing.

But then it shifts a gear. The two “teenage girl”s return from bickering and sing a strange little song about getting married. Again, this in itself is more classic Crimp, recalling the mad little song at the end of Face To The Wall or the two numbers in Attempts on Her Life. However, during the song, Uncle Bob (Paul Ready) enters – from a concealed entrance, looking for all the world like he’s just walked into the room through the wall. He’s dressed in a white Skiing jacket and white jeans, and Ready’s grown a straggly beard which makes him look oddly like David Bowie playing Baal in the BBC production of Brecht’s play (which, thanks to Simon Stephens on Twitter, I happened to have watched about two days before I saw Republic). I’ve got no idea if this played any part in Ready’s thinking or process, but once spotted, the similarity was hard to forget. There’s a similar unnerving steadiness of voice, a kind of sociopathic calm to this Uncle Bob.

Uncle Bob is leaving. He’s leaving the country with his girlfriend Madeleine, and has one or two things that he says he needs to tell his family from her before he goes. He launches into a massive evisceration of each family member, describing to them how each makes Madeleine feel physically ill. Then Madeleine turns up. Initially unassuming, polite, and slightly awkward in a “typically British” way. However, upon changing into a sheath dress that “feels like I’m zipped into my own vagina”, she turns out to indeed have the claws that Uncle Bob’s reports of her feelings about his family suggested. Perhaps most crucially, she delivers a coldly callous suggestion that Uncle Bob has sexually assaulted both his sister’s children – the teenage girls. Certainly, before Madeleine’s arrival, his behaviour toward them has been a bit creepy. In Dominic Cooke’s production, this aspect of the piece feels a little downplayed. There’s a hint of confusion. Are we even meant to take what Madeleine says seriously? Given that at/by this point, she’s really letting rip in all directions, it’s not clear, and yet the suggestion seems to stand.

On one level, this would provide an interesting route through the play. Jumping to the final act, which is actually called “IN THE REPUBLIC OF HAPPINESS”, we find Madeleine and Uncle Bob at their destination: in this production, a large-ish, minimalist white room that has risen from the floor after Act 2, with a floor-to-ceiling window giving onto a flat, grey-skyed landscape. Miriam Buether’s design here reads several ways. On one level we could see this as the kind of minimalist living-the-dream lifestyle that the pair described in Act 1 – “Hard. Clear. Sharp. Clean.” “Like a pane of glass” – although here, the flat field and grey sky here rather suggests that they’ve only managed to fly as far as a new architect-designed home in Norfolk. The third act is interesting because it posits Uncle Bob as a frightened puppet of Madeleine, she bullying him and he clearly quite frightened of her. The scene itself seems to suggest that he is some sort of a leader of this new land in which they find themselves. Madeleine speaks of him giving lectures attended by hundreds of “our citizens”. It’s not unlike the similarly ambiguous state conjured in Pinter’s One For The Road. Uncle Bob, Robbie,’s job, according to Madeleine, is not only to lecture, but to sing “their” citizens a song. Their 100% Happy Song, which suggests that “The earth – plus mum and dad / the bedside lamp – the state – / have... have... /.../ burned to ash – yes everything’s just great”. The reason the lyrics, when transcribed from the script, come out like that is that Uncle Bob is clearly not all that convinced by the song, is being prompted by Madeleine, is stumbling over words and is scared. Thinking about it, you could almost argue the scene as a kind of above-ground, gender-reversed After The End.

Now, on one level, it’s obviously hugely *readable*. On another level, I kind of feel like I’ve got absolutely no idea *where* it comes from. No, ok, I’m fine with it. I’m totally fine with it. It *does* feel weird that Crimp’s final – and by far shortest – scene suddenly conjures up a whole new state in which Uncle Bob apparently plays a prominent role. It reminds me of an extreme version of that final speech in The City - which also took something of an act of will to really buy into. I think it’s got something to do with the extreme tonal shift that goes on, taking the piece from pregnant/suggestive allegory to *Total Metaphor* without really apologising, or changing the language, so that we aren’t sure what’s meant to be “true” or “real” any more. I freely acknowledge that these are really dumb objections, and I wouldn’t want it smoothed out any more, or even necessarily foreshadowed by the production – which here, gives no through-line to this scene whatsoever. But still, it does leave the scene looking a bit exposed, and maybe like a writer’s mistake rather – thanks to the impeccably *reasonable* way it’s staged – a direction or design flaw. Reading the scene, I got a *lot* more from it, than I did watching it, which I suggest might be a problem.

Something this third scene does set up is a possible interpretation of the *function* of Act 2. Act two is (I think) the longest, section of the piece. Named THE FIVE ESSENTIAL FREEDOMS OF THE INDIVIDUAL it is split into five sections, individually named: The Freedom to Write the Script of My Own Life; The Freedom to Separate My Legs (it’s nothing political); The Freedom to Experience Horrid Trauma; The Freedom to Put It All Behind Me and Move On, and: The Freedom To Look Good & Live Forever.

From these titles alone, you get a pretty good idea of the “roll-call of contemporary obsessions” (way describe a play reductively, blurb-writers) with which Crimp is preoccupied here. On a very basic level it suggests nothing so much as a man who has been forced to spend all the time since his last play locked in a room with copies of the Daily Mail with a bit of Jeremy Kyle and Celebrity TV or biographies for light relief. On one hand, it does a good job a skewering these imagined truisms that apparently litter modern society. On the other hand, it almost feels like it has bought into one too many Daily Mail myths about “therapy-speak” and the “therapy society” etc.

And again, in another way this is pure Crimp-land. This time, the Crimpland of Fewer Emergencies and Attempts on Her Life. Indeed, this section feels like the much-needed update to many of the sections in Attempts which through no fault of their own became irreversibly dated by 9/11. Up until then, the obsession with Europe, the war in the former Yugoslavia, the aftermath of WWII and the fall of Soviet communism and bloodbaths in Africa like Rwanda was understandable. Post 9/11, while still understandable, it was also dated, like a play about contemporary issues ignoring an elephant in the room.

Here, Crimp’s own obsessions get a reboot. “The Script of My Own Life” perhaps pastiches mostly the way celebrities and perhaps the over self-helped speak about themselves, but “The Freedom to Separate My Legs” brings us up to date with its back-and-forth-ing about airport security checks, and the competing claims of “Freedom” and “Religion” on women’s bodies, bleeding into an uncomfortable description of the way children are medicated. “The Freedom to Experience Horrid Trauma” is back into therapy-land, and misery-memoir land. Ironically, its tone of contempt for This Sort Of Thing is weirdly similar to Ann Coulter’s criticism of the 9/11 widows, for example. Obviously Coulter’s politics are precisely the sort of thing being satirised by Crimp elsewhere, with all his talk of Republics and Freedom, but right here, the gun turned on “I have a right to terrible suffering plus to a horrid accident” could be right out of a Richard Littlejohn or (ahem) Julie Burchill column. Rhythmically it also recall’s Adrian Mitchell’s poem To Whom It May Concern.

There is also a heavy concentration on sexual performance and, again (cf. The City, also Wastwater), on child abduction and child sexual abuse. It’s surely no coincidence that one of the women is called Madeleine. Just the reminder of the name in the context of cynical lines like: “ - can’t write my own script? – can’t turn a sex crime to my advantage? – can’t turn a chicken sandwich or the scream of an abducted child to my own personal advantage?” or “Yes these are my own children. I haven’t stolen them, I’m not trafficking them.” – well, you get the point.

The last two sections of the second act “put it behind me and move on” and “look good & live for ever” - maintaining reference to these traumas of child abduction, terrorism and the class struggle, concentrates more again on the therapy and health obsessions. And this *could* be the point of the section bridging part one and part three. A kind of purging of Uncle Bob of his crimes against his sister’s children. Of course, that’s largely not it. Not least because of the way section two is performed – totally at random every night, with any given member of the cast free to take any line they like.

There are also more songs. The music for the songs has been written by Roald van Oosten (and they’re available on CD! Buy it! It’s really good!), who also apparently did the two songs for a Dutch production of Attempts... in 2007. (YouTube version of his absurdly catchy The Camera Loves You at the bottom).

I say they’re good (and they are), but that’s after a couple of days of acclimatising to the CD versions. That’s not to say those are better in than the versions in the theatre – the theatre versions definitely benefit from having them sung in situ by the relevant, or random cast members. On the other hand, the CD definitely makes more sense of the backing tracks, which in the theatre could do with also being played live, and at greater volume. On CD the thing sounds like a pleasantly unpleasant clutch of sungs by a depressed Dutch Muse fan with some acid and a bontempi organ. In the theatre, they sound much more full-throttle, but don’t quite rock as hard as it would be nice for them to.

Which, in a circuitous way brings us to the rest of the production. Like a totally British critic, I’ve so far mostly discussed the piece as if it were a book. That’s partly because I saw it so long ago that re-reading the script has been invaluable. At the same time, it’s been faintly alienating, as reading a script, much more than seeing a play, one’s imagination takes hold. Except, in the case of Cooke’s Republic, I think I also sat in the stalls redirecting, or at least wondering what what else might have been. No one this has anything to do with the cast, who are by-and-large excellent. Personally, I would have cast a few roles differently, but what there is is interesting.

No, it’s much more the whole conceptual framework. Which, give or take, feels a bit like The Path of Least Resistance. I don’t think it would be controversial to suggest that Dominic Cooke’s metier isn’t experimental theatre. Almost too inevitably, I couldn’t help wishing Katie Mitchell had been free to direct this. And Miriam Buether’s set isn’t one of her best. The first scene is more or less *right*. But where the obvious *massive* scope for interpretative freedom kicks in, then Cooke seems to more or less side-step it completely. Part two is more or less a chair-for-chair staging of Vicky Featherstone’s production of Crave. (actually, another three-part scheme I imagined was that it was a potted progression of Royal Court history – from naturalistic living room, to Crave, to Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, or the white cube of the German season in 2009), which was also, forgive me, another example of a British director more or less entirely ducking interpretation. Still, like Crave, if Attempts on Her Life is anything to go by Republic may well join Simon Stephens’s Pornography in the ranks of the student repetoire and receive dozens of far more imaginative, if sometimes charmingly naïve, post-3K influenced productions. (Yes! Result!). I mean, it’s not that there’s anything substantially *wrong* with the Cooke staging – although the set for 2, for logistical reasons which become apparent, is way too cramped – it’s just that there’s not much to get excited by either. Except the text, which I’m not sure is actually helped by being presented in a rolling chat show/Jeremy Kyle format. And, as I say, Act 3 could have been done any number of ways, and this one was fine, but could have been something else, which might have been finer.

So, there we go. Two months off and I seem to have completely forgotten how to review. Or maybe this is just the latest example of form following function, and my review echoes the way in whch the script obviously has some good – if, for Crimp, automatic-feeling – writing in it, and the production is fine, clearly gets the play, puts the words across, but feels unable to comment on them and so just gives them to us with the minimum fuss.

None of which really explains why I liked it so much. Well, it’s a fun play, and it’s nice to have one’s prejudices either confirmed, or at least thrown some underarm balls once in a while. And, y’know, it was Christmas, and it had songs. And a pretty great cast.

Look, go and see it. You’ve still got three days. You’ll se what I mean about the production. It’s not a problem and the acting pretty much ensures you won’t worry too much about it until later. And, y’know, stuff.

Now, fun!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I really agree with your comments regarding Dominic Cooke's direction. For me, what stopped the middle act being utterly stunning was the predictable and undermining set of a Jeremy Kyle-esque TV studio chosen by Cooke. While I appreciated the device at work with the actors, something which was discussed at length in the post-show talk, I found Cooke's direction undermined the new, poignant observations Crimp was making with his individual versus collective section. I felt some of the acting was brilliant and some of the writing too, what was lacking was a spine from the director. I think clarity of vision was lost because Cooke clearly didn't challenge Crimp or the actors to decide a firm interpretation on the text and as such the narrative was less than clear. For me, this didn't matter too much as I quite like my theatre vague and open to interpretation. However, when in a post-show talk you have young American audience member asking the director, "please, explain, did they all die or something? I don't get it?" the direction clearly isn't spot on.