Closer, Donmar Warehouse

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Originally written for Exeunt.

There’s one image that jumps out from the text of Closer, punching me right in the same organ it describes. Surprisingly, it comes from the mouth not of posturing writer Dan but of the dermatologist with whom he repeatedly crosses swords in pursuit of passion. “Have you ever seen a human heart?” Rufus Sewell’s Larry snarls, furiously eyeballing his rival across his desk. “It’s like a fist wrapped in blood.”  

This is love as Patrick Marber paints it: fierce, aggressive, violent. And selfish. Watching the four characters circle around and collide with one another, I’m oddly reminded of the ruthless corporate matadors in Mike Bartlett’s play Bull. Here, though, the prize is not a job but the equally fragile promise of love, of companionship, of The One.

But romcom happy endings are in short supply here. People are as likely to fall out of love as in it, twisting the knife on their way out of the door. First, Dan falls in love with Alice, a self-styled free spirit just returned from the States. After chewing Alice up and spitting her life out into a novel, Dan switches his affections to photographer Anna. Spurning him, Anna meets and dates Larry before finding her way to Dan’s bed all the same. Partners change and change again, cheating and lying along the way. Swap, hurt, repeat.

Again, like in Bull, appearances are important. Manipulation, Marber realises, is all about surface; it’s not what you do, but how you do it. Oliver Chris’s whining, wheedling Dan exemplifies this, clothing his selfishness and malice in a mixture of charm and feebleness. For all that he seems a bit wet, you get the impression that beneath his Hugh Grant-style dithering he possesses a steely, unforgiving determination to get what he wants. If Larry’s ugly side sits closer to the surface in Sewell’s grimly compelling performance, he’s no less schooled in getting his own way, while Nancy Carroll’s deceptively warm Anna has the talent of making manipulation look blameless. It’s just a shame that this version lets Rachel Redford’s Alice off the hook, going heavy on her vulnerability and light on the ways in which she uses her sexuality and air of mystery to her advantage.

Meanwhile, the world these characters move within – unfussily though not quite seamlessly shifted from the late nineties to the present day – is an all-encompassing advert for instant gratification. Love and sex might as well be consumer products, picked off the shelf or, as in the famous chatroom scene, ordered on the internet. It’s astonishing now how prescient Marber’s 1997, pre-Tinder play looks, anticipating the ways in which romance was to become packaged and monetised in the digital age.

This is a thread that David Leveaux’s production pulls on to the point of unravelling. Bunny Christie’s swish set, with its column of coloured lights and its large screen periodically adorned with Finn Ross’s busy video projections, all feels a bit much. The point may be that we live in an information saturated, image obsessed world, but by straining to apply this gloss the production paints over some of the raw brutality that makes the play lodge uncomfortably like a bur in the mind. What lingers is the very human capacity to hurt and be hurt.

The title, of course, is just another of the play’s cruel deceptions. No one really gets close to anyone else here; these characters are as allergic to intimacy as they are addicted to it, only able to reveal one part of themselves by concealing something else. Secrets are divulged not out of love but as a way of scoring points. Sex is as much a weapon as it is an act of passion. And even the most seemingly naive of the quartet turns out to be an elaborate fiction of her own making.

More than sex or lies or cruelty, though, Closer is obsessed with death, a fixation that is brought to the fore here. Marber’s is a play that fully subscribes to fellow playwright Simon Stephens’s description of dramatic action’s driving force: “Because we know we die, we want stuff”. The memorial stones that Christie keeps fixed to the back wall throughout are as stark a reminder of mortality as the obituaries that Dan writes for a living, a threat that sends each of the characters seeking that promised greener grass. In the spectre of death, though, perhaps lies the play’s one minuscule scrap of optimism. Because we know we die, we want stuff, but we also stubbornly keep searching and keep hoping. For all the characters’ brutality, maybe next time they’ll get it right.

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Blurred Lines, National Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Back in November of last year, myself and others were questioning the underrepresentation of female playwrights in the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala – and in its programming more broadly. Now, only a couple of months later, the fierce final scene of a new show with an all-female cast and a majority female creative team boldly critiques the venue’s gender inequalities from within its very walls. It’s nowhere near a solution, and one self-reflexive show in the theatre’s smallest, most risk-friendly space is no reason to get complacent, but it feels like a start.

The context for Carrie Cracknell and Nick Payne’s new show is right there in the title. Robin Thicke’s misogynistic song and accompanying video were just the most visible tip of the iceberg in a year that outdid itself in terms of casual sexism and media objectification of women. But 2013 was also a year in which feminism was very much part of the public discourse, a discourse that Blurred Lines continues. It is less a play than a theatrical conversation; an ongoing discussion about insidious, background sexism in its many mutating forms.

The show, devised by the company with Cracknell and Payne, promises to interrogate all areas of gender politics, from the media to the workplace to the home. It’s a big ask. To tackle these myriad forms of sexism, the piece deploys what are perhaps best described as a series of sketches. We see, for instance, a conversation between a married couple about the husband’s visits to prostitutes; the repeated shooting of a television scene in which a woman is assaulted; an office confrontation in which it is made clear that success for a few individuals does not translate into equality for the many. Given the force with which that latter point was made in Top Girls in 1982, it’s telling that it still needs to be reiterated.

These swift, punchy scenes, punctuated with performances of songs that cheekily and sometimes explosively critique the depiction of women in popular music, are all played out on the huge white staircase of Bunny Christie’s design. This installation, complete with colour-changing lights, boldly thrusts out into the Shed’s modest performance space, itself acting as a sort of intervention. It frames the female performers in ways that at times reflect the objectifying aesthetics of music videos and advertisements, but at others set up an uncomfortably close confrontation with the audience, while the steps themselves are suggestive of the distance that we still have to climb.

But what Blurred Lines is perhaps most successful at exposing is the sexism that remains rife within theatre itself. The piece opens with a series of statements spoken in turn by the performers: “girl next door”, “single mum”, “Northern blonde, bubbly”. It soon becomes clear that these are roles, referring at once to casting types, dominant cultural perceptions and the desperately restrictive boxes that women are expected to fit into in everyday life. This critique of what roles women are allowed to play remains implicit throughout, coming to a head in the final scene. While this powerful conclusion risks being something of a theatrical in-joke, alienating those who might not catch its shrewd self-referential nods, it is an important move towards theatre owning up to its own failings when it comes to gender (in)equality.

Representation is also at stake in other ways. Throwing together a cacophony of female voices, the piece is careful never to directly speak for or represent any one woman. When an individual’s story is told, as in the narrative of a teenage girl who is sexually assaulted by her partner, it is transmitted through multiple voices and in a fragmented structure. Straightforward portrayal of anyone who might be construed as a victim – perhaps most prominent among the roles available to women – is deliberately avoided. This also points, though obliquely, at the persistent tendency to take one woman as a representative for her entire sex, a tendency that the company stubbornly refuse.

On another, simpler level, the very fact of an all-female cast does interesting things to the staging of sexism. Every male character in the piece is, necessarily, played by a woman. This inversion makes an intriguing contrast with, say, Three Kingdoms, which despite sharply skewering misogyny, still placed it – potentially problematically – in the mouths of men. In this production, the exchange of misogynistic expressions between an all-female cast furiously underlines them, while managing to subtly subvert these views at the same time as reproducing them.

Yet women are still, with unsettling frequency, seen as victims here. That ranges from victims of violence to victims of workplace prejudice, but time and again they are rendered voiceless and frustrated. The intention is understandable; like the Everyday Sexism project, the piece attempts to unmask the latent sexism that pervades our society, often going unnoticed and unremarked upon. The bitter familiarity of many of these scenes provokes both recognition and discomfort, but it leaves us mired in our current situation rather than looking towards any solutions.

Of course, the very existence of this production and its team of talented women is a form of action in itself, and perhaps it is apt that we are left to continue the conversation and fight ongoing injustices. To downplay the scale of inequality and let the audience off the hook would be irresponsible. Nonetheless, there is something a little disheartening about a piece of theatre with such fire in its belly that insists on simply presenting and representing all too familiar portraits of sexism and victimhood.