Tuesday 23 September 2014

The Wolf From the Door – Royal Court

[seen 23/09/14]

[picture when Google Image Search stops fucking about]

Rory Mullarky’s new play is undoubtedly the most original thing in the Theatre Upstairs for quite some time. Indeed, it’s pretty radically unlike most plays. It’s possible to plot an impressionistic route through it saying, well, this bit is a bit like this, and that bit is a bit like that (try: Mr Sloane meets P.G. Wodehouse at a train station, made up by N.F. Simpson. They then embark on a Godard road movie with additional scenes and dramaturgy by Caryl Churchill. One is reminded of the freewheeling dramaturgical freedom in the plays of Ali McDowell). But that’s a stupid thing to do.

Perhaps a better route in is attempting to describe the sense of delight. Wolf From the Door is a pretty delightful play. Calvin Demba and Anna Chancellor are both completely charming. Sophie Russell and Pearce Quigley in particular border on genius as All The Other Characters. The dialogue is spare, crisp, and frequently very funny. But it’s not delightful in a relaxing way: it’s quite a frowny play. Frown-causing. Perhaps this is more A Thing for the critic, but I suspect not. Frowny, because you spend quite a bit of energy wondering what sort of a play it is. And you wonder what it’s driving at. And you wonder how much the larkiness adds to or detracts from The Seriousness. For, yes, there is also The Seriousness.

The plot (a plot! Imagine!) is a kind of English revolutionary romp set in the very near future. Lady Catherine Dean (Chancellor) is a leading light in an impossibly vast network of revolutionary cells. When she meets Leo (Demba) they set in train the series of events necessary for the complete overthrow of The British Establishment and capitalism in Britain. Which, I have to say, if nothing else, is bloody satisfying to watch.

James Macdonald’s production is interesting. It’s played on a simple, square, end-on platform, with four green plastic chairs and two plasticky trestle tables. This is bordered on each side by miniature, sarcastic versions of village fête marquees in which the actors get changed. There’s a slightly unnerving deadpan wit to both the staging and the delivery. This is Macdonald in the same playful mode as his production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock, things happen in the stage directions and – when unstageable – they are represented by a quick lighting change, a projected still photograph, and a noise: for instance, the decapitation of Tesco assistant manager, Derek. Unlike Cock, though, we do get props, actual eating (Demba’s Leo *says* he never eats/doesn’t need to eat. Demba is forced to wolf down a mackerel, an Eccles cake, several scampi, a Little Chef haddock portion, and suck on a peppermint teabag), and real nudity (just Demba again. Fans of the unclad male form should probably note that he has a particularly buoyant bottom).

There’s also the constant moving of the six pieces of stage furniture into new configurations between scenes to represent the seats on a railway station, train, bus, village hall, Tesco check-out and so on. So the thing that’s most noticeably, viscerally missing from the staging is any blood. Or even attempt at blood. Perhaps this is written in, I haven’t checked the script-programme. But whether the impulse comes from writer or director, it has an enormous effect. And that effect is to retain the effect that this is all jolly and fun. It’s very interesting, given that a photo-realist version of the story would be sickening to watch, whereas this production is about as hard to watch as Tom and Jerry. It’s an interesting tension, because it does make us think about the violence – at one point Lady Catherine stabs a wet blanket revolutionary colleague with a pair of scissors through the cheek. What would we make of that if we had to watch it? Chancellor’s character would suddenly look frighteningly unbalanced. Instead, thanks to the lack of gore, she manages to pull off this mutilation as a charming eccentricity. But we still think about it.

This seems to be the way that a lot of the script (or/and production) intends to operate. All the way through, with snowballing insistence, we think about revolution. A vast majority of the things that anyone says about revolution are to some extent true. The necessity, the urgency, the near-inevitability... And yet, up against that there’s always the fact, or the concern, about what revolutionary violence tends to lead to. (Hint: post-revolutionary violence, instability, not the result the revolutionaries are after.) It’s perhaps no coincidence that Mullarky is hitherto best known at the Royal Court as a translator of plays from Russian and closely related Slavic languages. Spending time in the language and with the culture that birthed perhaps the world’s most catastrophic revolution (irrespective what you think of the west, you’d have to have a soul made of nothing but dogmatic ideology to deny that the sheer numbers and cruelty of the gulags are a catastrophe). And even in this Very English revolution we can also hear the echoes of the fall-out from Tahrir Square and the maniacal ultraviolence of ISIL.

Nonetheless, even the violence is an interesting, seductive question. I’ll probably write this up as a separate feature sooner or later, but it’s fascinating to watch Wolf... in the light of Men in the Cities and other pro-revolution plays in Edinburgh this year. Sat in the Theatre Upstairs last night, it did briefly feel as if the question was fast becoming “when?” not “if...?”.

Diffused violence aside, other formal considerations of Mullarky’s play should be observed. In my “things it reminded me of a bit” round-up, I mentioned Caryl Churchill, and the events of the “Revolution” itself felt like they owed a great debt to the surreal last part of her Far Away the bit where increasingly odd groups of things fell to warring with other unlikely things (“QUOTE” [need to go find script]). It’s almost Goon Show-ish, in places. And obviously those bits do make a person feel a bit sheepish for having just written such an earnest examination of how serious the thing might be about the possibility of revolution.

Inside the piece somewhere there also seems to be a structure that questions exactly how the class system in Britain works. It’s no coincidence that Leo is hand-picked and mentored by a hot, posh, older woman, right? Or that his back-up read on their relationship is that of son surrogate. Lord knows if we’re even meant to be paying attention to things like that, but you’d imagine so, and one does. Even with the joking, the things said pile up into all the stuff you take out of the play to think about. And somewhere in there seems to be the implication – which is being trotted out all over again (at the rate of at least one article per day by The Guardian at the moment) thanks to the release of the idiotic-looking film version of Royal Court sell-out Posh – that we, the English, have a bit of a love affair with our upper classes, and we actually need them about to mother us a bit. Hope that’s not intended, or if it is, then that it’s at least tempered with an idea that that mentality is itself a product of ruling class propagandising.

Is there an ultimate thing we’re meant to do with this play? It feels pretty open-ended to me. Maybe I’m missing some really big, obvious, signposted *meaning*, but I don’t think so. And that inself feels pretty radical. Especially for the Royal Court where we used to be used to being bashed over the head with foregone conclusions. Instead, now, we’re given open-endedness and having to think for ourselves, having been generously gifted with 1hr25 of entertaining, oblique cues for imaginative engagement with ideas. That seems a pretty good state of affairs to me. And the jokes really are charmingly droll. Yes. Good.


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