Wednesday 11 January 2017

Love at the National, or, Ultimately Evading the Harder Arguments

In advance of this show I had considerable misgivings. Partly because my run of poor experiences at the National over the last year or so has given me low expectations. Partly because this has garnered considerable critical praise and I've disagreed with similar choruses on several NT offers lately. And partly because the advanced advertising made clear this was an issue play – and I have seen far too many poor plays in that category in recent years. As it turned out, some aspects of this 90 minute one act grew on me. There are some strong performances in the company and at times I was moved, but I found the end less powerful than others and I think this is a show which takes an easier way than might be apparent at first sight.

The setting is a shared flat with communal kitchen/living room and bathroom. Its inhabitants (so far as we are shown) are Nick Holder's Colin looking after his incontinent mother (Anna Calder-Marshall). The mixed race couple: Luke Clarke's unemployed and recently evicted Dean and pregnant Emma (Janet Etuk), plus Dean's two children (if I understood correctly Emma is not their mother and one of several flaws in Alexander Zeldin's script is that it is never established how this situation has arisen or what has happened to their mother). Finally we have two under-written refugees – Hind Swareldahab's Tharwa and Ammar Haj Ahmad's Adnan.

The performances of Holder and Calder-Marshall are very fine. Etuk grew on me as the evening progressed, and there was nice work from whichever of the rotating sextet were playing the two children. The others do the best they can with insufficiently fleshed out parts – I thought it was mistaken not to provide surtitles for the sections in Arabic – I'm sure this was deliberate and intends to make a point about how we see/interact with refugees in so far as we do out in the real world but again it further hinders us getting to know those characters – a sacrifice which is not sufficiently compensated for dramatically by the authorial point.

I have seen a previous play with a similar scenario – Long Life by a Latvian company which played at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2006 and dealt with communal housing for the elderly in Riga. That play dispensed with spoken text altogether, ran longer, but ultimately found more power. Here I initially found Zeldin's direction slow, but it does build power in the last half hour or so, and he is attentive to the detail of movement and interaction in ways that too many current directors aren't. However, unlike others I was not convinced by the breaking of the fourth wall at the end – there was, I think a parallel with the recent awful Pacifist's Guide in forcing audience members to engage in a particular way while the play ducks the harder challenge which I'll come on to.

First, I need to say a bit more about the way Zeldin treats his theme. His major point is to emphasise the iniquity of the welfare system cuts which trap people in these positions. As a subsidiary point he makes some attempt to explore the specific effects of that situation on these individuals. Much the strongest writing deals with the Colin-Barbara mother-son relationship, and also their interactions with Dean's family – particularly Emma and Dean's daughter Paige. The scene in which Etuk strikes Holder, he breaks down, and she is finally shaken out of her sense of entitlement is very powerful. But unfortunately these two stories are ultimately peripheral to the narrative's central focus on the Dean-Emma situation. This is less well written, Zeldin needed, in my view, to establish more clearly how they've got into this plight. He makes them so assertive of the principle that they are better than this that I found it difficult for much of the early part of the play to sympathise with them. I don't know whether it was the writing or the performances or a combination but the relationship didn't sufficiently come to life for me. The inter-racial element, to me, felt contrived.

But the real flaw, for me, in this piece, and the challenge that it ducks, arises from its one sidedness. Councillors, job centre workers, ultimately MPs and ministers are off stage, faceless villains who are thus easy to condemn (full disclosure I have a brother who works for a city council so perhaps I am sensitive on the point). Zeldin is strong in his conviction of the awfulness of the situation he portrays, but finally lacks the courage to test it by putting any representatives of counter arguments on stage and allowing the audience to form their own judgement. Shaw, one of the finest of issue playwrights, made regular room for such counter arguments. Zeldin's choice takes potential for dramatic weight from the show. But it also has a further effect. I rather suspect that the majority of the NT audience are people who have already read reports and leading articles about these situations and are well convinced of the iniquity of it. But the fact is that many in the country clearly do not agree, have supported governments who have made the cuts which have, on this evidence, produced this crisis. This play is not I suspect going to change those minds (despite what many commentators who are calling for ministers to attend it might think) because it hasn't attempted to understand them or the wider segment of voters who have given them support. A more significant play would have had the courage to explore that as well.

Most of the audience gave this a standing ovation. I remained in my seat. It is worth catching for several strong performances but ultimately this is a show which, in my view, shies away from hard questions more than at first appears.

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