Saturday 19 December 2015

Here We Go/Evening at the Talk House at the National, or, Committing my Cardinal Theatrical Sin Twice in One Evening

Hot on the heels of the dismal come two more National Theatre misses (and the rest of Norris's first months in charge weren't that hot to start with).

First up on Thursday I suffered through Caryl Churchill's Here We Go. This is the third Churchill play I've seen and it remains beyond me why she is considered one of our greatest playwrights. This one consists of three short scenes (the second and third ones of which both seriously outstay their welcome). First we are at a wake where the guests give snatches of information about the deceased before telling us how they themselves will die – since we have hardly met any of these people (and Churchill is plainly uninterested in giving us any more information about them) it is difficult to care very much – though I did enjoy seeing Susan Engel (wonderful in 3 Winters back in January) in action again. Second, we meet the deceased (I don't really see how there can be any doubt about this) in what is presumably the afterlife where he treats us to a tour of literary and religious ideas about that afterlife – lectures rarely work on stage in my experience, and this is no exception not least because all we know by the end of the scene is that we don't know what happens when we die which I already knew before I came in. Third, and most interminably, we watch as the same old man, assisted by his care worker, changes from pyjamas to day clothes and back again time after time after time in silence. Has there ever been such a desperately drawn out fade to blackout?

In the last scene I presume that Churchill was trying to make the audience feel something of the bleak life of growing old, but it just did not convince me. For one thing, I doubted that the two people involved in the ritual would never address a word to one another. More seriously, I question if a useful purpose can be achieved by boring your audience so completely – surely if you want to achieve something meaningful with such a depiction it must engage the audience's emotions.

I left the auditorium fuming, and I was still in an ill tempered mood when I took my seat in the Dorfman for Wallace Shawn's Evening at the Talk House. This starts moderately, but quickly deteriorates to the point I'm afraid that during the penultimate scene my jaw was dropping in incredulity at what was going on. Shawn's play features a reunion of some members of a theatrical company ten years on from their participation in a not terribly successful play. As so so often in the modern play, Shawn doesn't appear to be very interested in convincingly fleshing out the characters and relationships on stage. They talk interminably, but one doesn't learn enough about any of them to give a damn for their opinions or fate. For a brief moment, somewhere in the middle, it looks as if Shawn might be going to make some interesting political points. My Americanist ears pricked up at talk of alternating leaders. But the discussion of elections/politicians is rapidly abandoned again without adding enough to the names to make me believe in them. Instead, Shawn veers off into a fantasy in which there is a government sponsored programme of murders of those who are a threat to “us”. There are echoes of Mike Bartlett's dreadful Game here (seen earlier this year at the Almeida) and the shadows of drone warfare and the war on terror are also evoked. But the problem, as with the characters/relationships already mentioned, is that the situation in which these things are being discussed is so shallowly drawn that it is impossible to take it seriously and thus to feel much outrage about it.

Adding insult to injury the play is also arch about the form. Again, as I've had occasion to write here before, this is wearisomely familiar territory in modern theatre and it almost always fails. I just don't understand the apparently endless desire of theatre practitioners to go on about the idea that theatre is doomed. The very fact their work is on stage enabling them to make this claim is a strong counter argument. And if, despite this, they still think it is doomed, then why on earth do they bother in the first place? Setting this larger question aside, all that can be said about this iteration of the claim is that it is as dull and unconvincing as most of the others I've seen, not helped, once again, by the overall flimsiness of the setting.

The evening's nadir is reached in the penultimate scene where the play bafflingly veers off into extended dialogue between Robert (Josh Hamilton) the ten years ago play's author and Jane (Sinead Matthews) a failed actress turned waitress at the club. Jane, in particular, proceeds to go on and on about her miserable life and her contemplation of suicide. Matthews's poor performance doesn't help matters, but the bigger mystery is what the scene is doing there and how it is supposed to relate to the rest of the play.

With the exception already mentioned the acting is solid enough as is Ian Rickson's direction, but neither transcends the material. This is scheduled to run almost as long as God help everybody involved.

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