White Bear Theatre, London – until 22 April 2017
You can be who you want to be, right? Rob, a driving instructor in modern day Romford, believes himself to be an 8th century Chinese poet from the Tang Dynasty. When he finally chooses to live the sequestered life of a poet out on the marshes in a wooden hut, it has huge repercussions on his family and friends. The whole thing’s silly – sure, you can choose a career, or where you live, but contrary to what Rachel Dolezal and desperate sci-fi fans may think, we cannot chose our race or the century we live in.
It’s not just the character of Rob who’s absurd, though – the whole world Peter Hamilton creates falls in the same style. There’s Rob’s alcoholic sister-in-law Josie who wants to move to France and make wine, Rob’s wife Lynn tolerates his nonsense whilst sleeping with her sister’s husband, and there’s a naive driving student and a reproductive health doctor thrown into the mix. Rather than using the absurdity examine the repercussions of mental illness, Hamilton mocks individual frailty in a heightened play. He also fails to criticise selfishness, alcoholism, religion, living a life within the status quo, or the pressures to fall in line with everyone else – all themes within the play. This is no Ionesco, or Camus – The Poetry of Exile is absurd for the sake of it and communicates absolutely nothing other than its own pointlessness.
The focal point of the story, Rob never really fit in. He likes his job well enough and is married to one of the prettiest girls from school. They live a comfortable, suburban life. His wife’s sister and her husband live nearby, and life generally ticks along just fine. But Rob’s not happy. A natural introvert who focuses on life’s tiny details like writing poetry and blowing bubbles, his mental health eventually deteriorates from years of attempted conformity. Hamilton depicts Rob as a barely functional person with Autism, and the scenarios he puts him in totally take the piss – at one point, Rob is blowing bubbles out of his arse. In another, he is parading around in a Chinese-style robe fully convinced he is a poet from the ancient world. Another scene has him standing on his head in a toilet cubicle to make a sperm donation.
Despite the script being appallingly pointless and pretentious, the performances are actually quite good. The actors totally commit to the chosen style and remain focused throughout the ridiculousness. If they are self-conscious or aware they are performing in a piece of theatrical waste, they don’t show it.
A lost opportunity to make a biting comment on modern life, The Poetry of Exile ridicules rather than engages. It’s a twitter troll who corrects spelling rather than presents arguments. It’s a politically incorrect meme rather than statistics. Absurdity for the purpose of generating humour rather than commentating on a political or social issue doesn’t work, and it this case comes across as insulting, vain and unfunny.