Sunday 8 March 2015

Game at the Almeida, or, Nasty but Unconvincing Shots

This is the second play Mike Bartlett has written for Rupert Goold's Almeida, and the third of his plays that I've seen. Neither 13 nor King Charles III especially impressed me but Game is in a different class...and not in a good way.

Bartlett's premise on this occasion is that a housing and employment crisis in some unidentified location in England (one presumes a city) has led a couple to accept a house under an unpleasant condition. That condition is that at certain times of the day they can be shot with tranquiliser darts by paying punters. I criticised Bartlett's over-praised King Charles III for its unconvincing premise. Bartlett makes even less of an attempt with the premise here. The play is completely uninterested in exploring the economic circumstances which have led to this set up, or in creating characters of sufficient depth to make their presence in the set-up, and their choices following that, have any real dramatic conviction, or activate any emotional connection (with at least this member of the audience anyway). Instead Bartlett attempts to substitute audience complicity for intelligent argument or depth of character. Thus the audience are placed, with the paying, shooting customers, in four blinds outside the gift house. All this succeeded in doing was convincing me that I had not the least desire ever to participate in such an excuse for sport and that I did not believe (not unlike in King Charles III) that such a set up would ever have got legally off the drawing board.

This is a nasty, unpleasant near hour to sit through (it feels longer than that) because there is an inherent tension in the presence of a gun on stage especially when it quickly becomes clear that they're going to keep going off for the duration of the performance. But there is a distinction between that and a play being shocking. A number of other critics have claimed that this play is the latter, I disagree. A genuinely shocking play in this style would make the audience complicit both in the act of shooting and in the circumstances which have led up to that shooting – this fails on both counts. It is little more than a tiresome exercise in seeing just how nasty you can be on stage.

No member of the ensemble succeeds in rising above the poor quality of the material not least because most of them have precious little stage time. Kevin Harvey (David) comes closest and I'd like to see him again in higher quality material. I also felt for Mike Noble who was so impressive in Port at the National but here makes little impression. All the blame however lies at the door of the playwright.

Nor is the staging particularly innovative in my view. I've seen the fourth wall broken before far more effectively (the best instance being the killing of an audience member in an RSC Venetian Twins years ago). TV screens and filming are a pretty frequent feature of theatre these days (I often think too frequent). While the technical work both in terms of the use of film and the physical transformation of the Almeida is impressive, I dispute whether it can be regarded as original. In any case, such technical achievements avail you nothing (as I have certainly had cause to say about other shows) if your narrative and characters are as weak as is the case here.

Overall this is an unpleasant, overpriced (at £30 for just under an hour) and unconvincing play. To be avoided.

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