Wednesday 2 October 2013

The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas

[contains spoilers: all serious criticism should]

Dennis Kelly’s The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas is an extraordinary play and almost certainly the best thing the Royal Court have staged downstairs since Simon Stephens’s Wastwater in 2011. That it is the first production proper of Vicki Featherstone’s artistic directorship, and is directed by Featherstone herself, bodes incredibly well for the coming years.

How to describe? Coming in at almost three hours long (inc. interval), it feels like a big, rangy thing – a mad scramble to tell the story of one man’s life using any means necessary. And this is the first great thing about the writing. It happily hops from style to style – opening with a prolonged bit of one-after-the-other narration, with the whole cast taking random turns to deliver lines, building a picture of Gorge’s early life. Then, with a literary handbrake turn we’re plunged into the middle of an ostensibly naturalistic scene. This is accompanied by a lifting of the opening starry back-drop and the trundling of a fully naturalistic room to the front of the stage. Naturalistic, yes, but we can see the stage all round it. Tom Scutt’s design is a kind of chipboard reflection of a proscenium arch facing out toward the back wall, as if we, the audience, are seated at the very back of the stage (or else imagining there’s a mirror behind the pros.arch we are looking at, reflecting back an image of our absence). This pinging visually and literarily between registers works brilliantly. As if Kelly has decided we’re all grown-ups and we can deal with a play being More Than One Style – sometimes all at once – and that this is definitely the best way to deal with telling precisely this story. Featherstone’s direction and Scutt’s design emphasise the text’s rough and ready availability.

Gorge (pronounced “George”) Mastromas is an incredible creation. In Royal Court terms, and if there was any sense in the world, he’d be being hailed as a far more fascinating creation than Jimmy Porter ever was (and, in Tom Brooke’s portrayal, surely a contender for all the Best Leading Actor gongs going). Gorge is essentially a hapless everyman. His 70s childhood feels disquieting recognisable (at least to me – I was born two years later than Gorge). I even wonder if Kelly has hit on a particular generational peculiarity – the last generation to be raised in a pre-Thatcher world, with a pre-Free-Market moral compass, and then be shaped while growing up by the up-ending of all such values in the decade of Greed Is Good. Gorge’s childhood, as explained here is essentially a series of disappointments occasioned by him being classically “good”, “moral” and “truthful”: attempts to act nobly see either his actions misconstrued or his highest hopes dashed. Trying to “do the right thing” sees Gorge repeatedly finish last.

So it is that he happens to find himself as an unremarkable flunky at a business meeting suddenly being illicitly inducted into a “secret society” as his boss temporarily leaves the room. A businesswoman explains to him:

Well, actually it’s on YouTube, so:

She even tells him she has “stopped time” to do so. (And, in a witty, magical-realist touch, the clock on the wall does indeed freeze for the entire duration of the scene.)

And the upstanding, moral loser, Gorge, crumbles. It’s nothing less than Faust: the promise of infinite power in return for the complete absence of a soul. It is also, of course, a powerful and direct description of capitalism. For me, the reason it works so brilliantly is that is it all these things at once. It’s not *just* a metaphor for capitalism, it also frames a series of simple-but-complex philosophical questions very starkly: “is goodness also cowardice?”, “what is it to succeed?”, “is success compatible with morality?”, “would you succeed more/better if you observed fewer morals?”, “What’s so good about ‘being good’ anyway?”.

I imagine they are questions that everyone has asked themselves repeatedly. They certainly strike me as being the very questions that lie at the heart of the “Big Conversation” about modern Britain (and beyond). Hell, they’re the question at the heart of Faust, of Goodfellas; they’re the question of anyone who’s ever had the chance to achieve something by quietly, untraceably fucking over a friend (or someone unseen on the other side of the world). They’re the questions we avoid asking ourselves when we buy a cheap top in Primark or ignore the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo while using our iPhones. They’re the issue that separate the “bleeding heart liberal” from the Neo-con hawk. (Although, not so far that the bleeding heart liberal can’t the coltan and the child slave labour with no more than a shrug and a slight wince, blaming the way the world is run).

From here on in everything Gorge does is informed by this way of winning. And, of course, we see him as a telling metaphor for The Market. But what makes the play great is that Kelly rarely lets us lose sight of Gorge as just a human being; as a talented, sociopathic liar. And this is another thing that makes the play great; it is actually, properly exciting. Theatre and literature love a big old liar, right? Everything from Richard III to Stephen Fry’s début novel by way of Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr Ripley. At the same time as being repulsed by Gorge’s lies – the main motor in the latter part of the first half is Gorge falling in love with a woman who turns out to have been a victim of child-abuse, and he sets about making her fall unshakably in love with him by claiming precisely the same of himself – we find ourselves investing in the outcome, so that the survival of his impossibly high-stacked house of cards becomes as tense for us as the best thriller. Will he get found out? What’s going to happen next? In this Kelly is as much an entertainer as some sort of moral philosopher with something to say about late-capitalism. The writing itself is also just consistently brilliant. Little descriptions or flourishes repeatedly strike you as particularly apt, well-put or hugely evocative.

And then there’s the acting. And, my God, Featherstone has assembled a great company here. It’s interesting to note the extent of her loyalty. A lot of the actors have worked with her before. In this it feels a bit like the Katie Mitchell informal ensemble. (No, obviously Mitchell isn’t unique in this, but it feels more strongly pronounced than with a lot of directors, and to similarly excellent results.) A director who has, by trial and error, found a pretty tight group of actors with whom she will work again and again, and who, clearly, will jump at the chance of working with the director again.

It’s good to see Alan Williams, who was a highlight of the Open Court Season returning, here as befuddled businessman, “M”, and a stand-out member of the chorus. There’s something about that great, northern-accented, foghorn of a voice, combined with Williams’s craggy, battered, steely looks that seems to make him one of Britain’s most compelling actors to watch even before he starts with that excellent acting that he does. Similarly, it was great to see Jonathan McGuinness again, after last seeing him (to the best of my recollection) in the Paines Plough première of David Grieg’s Pyrenees (reviewed there eight years ago by a young Chris Haydon), which was directed by, oh, Vicky Featherstone (see? Loyalty). McGuinness has a real skill for finding the strangeness of what could be a commonplace line, and delivering it with an extra, hard-to-pin-down sense of the mysterious. It suits the play and his character, Gel (hard-G), down to the ground. The excellent Kate O’Flynn from off of Paines Plough’s Roundabout Season supplies a characteristic and much-needed hesitant humanity to the ensemble, while Pippa Heywood, perhaps best known for her parts in numerous TV comedies (Green Wing, for e.g.), comes on like a veteran of so many Martin Crimp plays to the extent that for the entire duration of Ritual Slaughter... I was convinced she’d been one of the ensemble of In The Republic of Happiness. (As an aside, I’m interested that I think there’s now an “approved” style of Crimp-acting. But you know what I mean, right? There sort of is, yeah? Like Pinter-acting...)

However, invidious though comparisons within ensembles are, Tom Brooke really takes the acting biscuit for his portrayal of the titular anti-hero. Brooke has an incredible face. Drawn, skinny, and a slightly funny shape – a wider-than-you’d-expect jaw kind of equalling his vivid cheekbones; even his fine, thinning hair which starts out gelled down into a lower-middle-class surrender to mediocrity, somehow magically reasserts itself as the money begins rolling in. And his voice, a painful, scratchy whine, gains a sonorous depth and authority once Gorge has made his billions, while Gorge’s (faked) performance as a neurotic abuse victim breaking down in paroxysms of gag-reflex is horribly real – all the more so for our knowing it’s “only acting”, even in the world of the play.

I’ll concede the play isn’t totally perfect. For my money the very final scene perhaps risks tipping over into just being pure Dickens at times; but I think the end of such a remarkable play – especially when it’s new – is always going to feel slightly “up-for-grabs” for a while. I, for example, would have preferred something yet more ambiguous. I wasn’t as taken with the performance of Joshua James in his role as Pete, which was problematic as he has to carry a significant part of the piece’s pay-off, but then I think that the pay-off itself was possibly a bit too lecture-y/preach-y/case-concluded-y – too neat for a work that had hitherto carried such a wealth of contradictions (indeed, even Scutt’s set hits a rare bum note with a beautiful photograph of a lakeside view of mountains dissolving into what can only be interpreted as a neon chart of a market plunging into a recession). But perhaps I’m being unduly harsh. After all, I was also gripped by this ending as it stood. I just had issues with the extent that it might have seemed to have been telling me what to think – but that might either be me reading onto it, or filing to recognise the challenge that “being told what to think” could be being intended. Perhaps, my initial feeling, that destiny was being used to paint a moral lesson, was the incorrect reading. Perhaps we should have been given longer – much longer – with the final image to think through the ramifications properly.


Having spent possibly too long writing this review, and possibly being a bit too bit-by-bit with the analysis, I worry that I’ve slightly dissipated the energy that I felt on leaving the theatre. This is remarkable work. Bold, fighty, weird, brilliant work. This is a great company of actors working under an inspired director on a superlative script in an artfully imagined and realised sonic and visual world.

If I get the chance, I’m going again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks Andrew! I wouldn't have gone to see this were it not for reading this. The rest of the critics made it sound like an extended version of If You Won't Let Us Dream (which it is most definitely not) which is why I was so hesitant about going before reading your blog.