Almeida Theatre, London – until 10 June 2017
Simon may be from the wrong side of New York, a roughneck who ties his wife Anne to a chair and tapes her mouth for being “critical” of his neighbourhood. But he does have a way with words. Encountering a playwright on the sidewalk he snarls “I have no interest in the theatre…I will not pay good money to be told that the world is a heap of shit”.
Huzzah! That’s telling the Almeida set. We titter nervously, and suddenly everything is great. For Martin Crimp, master of the sour perspective, may veer into surrealismos about blind cab drivers, and be served by programme-notes speckled with tags from Kafka, Baudrillard, Egon Schiele, Uncle Tom Cobbleivich and all. But unlike some writers of the dark ‘n furious persuasion, Mr Crimp knows that his job is also to be entertaining.
And so he is, in a deliciously horrid fable about the unfeeling urban jungle, coupled with the way that film and TV elites exploit real people’s stories. Especially pretty women’s. Since half our screen entertainment today seems to involve either memories of rape and abuse, or fictions about it accompanied by the producers’ bragging about how they interviewed real victims, this 1993 play is well worth a revival. Especially under Lyndsey Turner’s crisp clear direction.
So Reader, I loved it. Right from the opening scene where Jennifer the producer, (a fabulously avid Indira Varma) is hearing Ann’s account of her ordeal and is thrilled by the detail of the gag being shiny-backed tape because it will catch the light better “the glint of it. That’s good”.
Within the general message about urban unease and dehumanisation – blurry , threatening windscreen cityscape projections between starkly set scenes – lies a straightforward story. Anne’s abuse by a controlling husband is colonized by Jennifer and Andrew’s film idea. The project is assisted by the money and clout of the actor – Gary Beadle having hellish good fun as a cocky controlling megastar -and by a fading playwright who has written an Edward-Bondish screenplay , rather droolingly, about a fading artist who gets invited to live with a young couple and watch them have elaborate sex (sure I’ve seen that play somewhere).
There are numerous lines so cleverly tacky that you almost whoop with recognising laughter (“John is attracting a great deal of money to this, Anne. Your new hotel. Your clothes…” reproves Jennifer when the subject protests). There is a truly horrid burst of violence from Simon in defence of his victim-wife’s stolen reality. So the play keeps you – if not edified – well on edge. And if you feel unease at Ann’s quiescence about her treatment and imprisonment, at least that too is challenged with shrill feminist disapproval by her screen avatar Nicky (Ellora Torchia) “I think that kind of passivity is totally degrading…. This” she cries, pointing rudely at the actual Anne ” is not MY idea of Anne “. It reminded me of that terrible film of Mansfield Park which made Fanny Price into a feisty, whipcracking heroine so as to feed the vanity of the star or the principles of the modern-minded director.
Thus the Crimpian shudders come at you in stereo from right and left alike. And the best definition yet of corruption is there, albeit with the playwright’s voice channelled improbably through the normally blandish Andrew: “Corruption has three stations. The first is the loss of innocence. The second is the desire to inflict that loss on others. The third is the need to instil in others that same desire”. Brrr.
Aisling Loftus is a superb Anne, sensitive to every flickering uncertainty and pragmatic realism, and the splendid Ian Gelder gives Webb all the pathos of the faded has-been writer. But to be honest, the palm this time goes to Matthew Needham as Simon. His dead-eyed, needy, savage realism genuinely scared me.