The Pass, Royal Court

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Following Thomas Hitzlsperger’s decision to publicly come out, renewed focus has fallen on the prejudice still faced by gay footballers, bestowing something of a mixed blessing on the Royal Court’s latest offering. On the surface of it, John Donnelly’s play is “about” a premiership footballer struggling with his sexuality, which he stubbornly refuses to define or discuss. But it also touches on lots of other things – fame, money, friendship, competition –which get slightly elided in the wake of its sudden topicality.

The play, following a familiar trajectory, traces the journey of footballer Jason (the ever-excellent Russell Tovey) from early promise through to the giddy zenith of fame, plotted out via three pivotal moments in three different hotel rooms. Its first scene, while slow to develop, offers plenty to relish. Jason and best mate Ade (Gary Carr) are killing time on the night before the biggest match of their lives – two tensely coiled springs in close proximity. Their relationship and its silent undercurrent of mutual attraction are believably and wittily sketched, as laddish banter gradually gives way to compelling tenderness.

Cut to seven years later, when Jason has gained fame and fortune but lost the puppylike glimmer of mischief that so animated him on his first appearance. This is where the piece begins to slacken its initially confident grip, taking a long time to get anywhere. The scene’s encounter between Jason and table dancer Lyndsey (Lisa McGrillis), though enjoyable, feels convoluted and contrived for the sake of a plot point that could be achieved with much less meandering. The swagger returns after the interval, as Jason and Ade are reunited for a hedonistic night that crackles with danger and desire, but it’s hard to shake the suspicion that this is a script in need of some tightening.

Alongside the main thrust of the plot, there are also some more ambitious shots which – though on target – rarely hit the back of the net. Buried within the classic tale of fame’s empty promises is an implicit critique of the parameters of success in modern society, most of which rest on money. Competition, in life as in sport, also receives a bit of a battering; the sense is that this, more than anything else, is what drives a wedge between Jason and Ade, while Jason’s desire to win leaves him cripplingly lonely. But these avenues are left frustratingly underexplored.

Despite its weaknesses, however, Tovey holds the piece together in a remarkable central performance. From his first youthful grimaces of self-congratulation, furiously skipping to the imagined roars of the crowd, to the hunched husk of a form that he becomes in the final scene as he bends determinedly over his exercise bike, Tovey’s every last muscle is employed in fleshing out the character of Jason. Astonishingly, he seems to age physically as well as emotionally, subtly transfiguring himself before our eyes as he progresses from enthusiastic newcomer to hardened veteran. One imagines that he behaves on the football pitch as he does in life – dodging, sprinting, pulling off slick manoeuvres without breaking a sweat, yet all underscored with a faint attitude of desperation.

This is reflected in John Tiffany’s production, which marries polish with uncertainty, machismo with vulnerability. There are also brilliant outbursts of playfulness, Jason and Ade’s gleeful trashing of the hotel room in the final scene being one of the most entertaining, though these do not always sit comfortably with the rest of the action. More could perhaps be made of Laura Hopkins’ clean, slick design, capturing both the attraction and the cold impersonality of the hotel room setting. It’s a canny choice of location, at once encapsulating glamour, escape and loneliness. I’m particularly struck by Lyndsey’s loaded observation that “tomorrow someone will come in and clean this all away”; a simple factual statement that resonates deeply with Jason’s transitory, unfulfilled existence.

As the piece closes, however, it leaves the nagging sense of something lacking. Ultimately, the main disappointment of The Pass is that it fails to add anything significantly new to the discussion it engages with, leaving my opinions on its subject matter little altered or challenged at the end of two and a bit hours, in spite of many intriguing turns along the way. But this is, perhaps, less a failure on its own terms than on the terms of the media discourse surrounding it. Timeliness, it seems, is something of a double-edged sword.

The Seagull, Nuffield Theatre

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There’s a canny, twisting circularity to this bold new version of Chekhov’s gloomy masterpiece. In an early conversation between lovesick young writer Konstantin and his uncle Sorin, a throwaway reference is made to Escher – master of the impossible image. As the play progresses, this glancing allusion becomes something of a metaphor; as in the artist’s famous staircases, Chekhov’s melancholic characters climb only to descend, walking round in hopeless, navel-gazing circles until the paradox of existence itself becomes inconceivable. Here the beautiful is also entrapping, leading to a dead end or a sharp drop.

Headlong’s take on The Seagull was never going to be blandly traditional, but this new interpretation by playwright John Donnelly and director Blanch McIntyre injects Chekhov’s play with impressive vigour, achieving the often promised but rarely delivered feat of rendering a classic totally fresh. The production applies a new lens to the text by wisely resisting the urge to wrestle it into contemporary trappings – the troublesome horses are still firmly present, alongside vaguely modern dress – instead embracing its vaunted timelessness. Much as the Young Vic’s recent version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House lightly played with temporality, displacing the narrative enough that it could seem somehow both period and contemporary, Chekhov’s characters are knocked out of their time.

This temporal displacement works across direction and design; Laura Hopkins’ empty grey shell of a set, virtually robbed of visual reference points, could almost be the post-apocalyptic landscape described in Konstantin’s play, the occasion for which Chekhov’s cast of ennui-stricken bourgeois characters are initially gathered. Throughout the romantic entanglements and artistic trials that follow, a long seesaw becomes the striking centrepiece of the stage, visualising the delicate and ever-shifting balance between the various characters. As one individual ascends, another is dumped unceremoniously back to earth.

As well as drawing attention to its own fragile equilibrium, this production is self-aware in other ways. McIntyre’s approach is deeply concerned with the latent theatricality present within the metabolism of the play, making the characters – in particular the aspiring young artists Konstantin and Nina – sporadically conscious of their own appearance before others, turning to address spectators in sequences that raise the house lights on the audience. Writing, meanwhile, leaves its physical trace on the back wall of Hopkins’ set, vividly animating the act of invention that sits at the play’s core. Essentially, McIntyre reveals this as a play about art, about how the artist sees both themselves and the world.

These particular artists, however, are frequently unlikable in their existential angst, schizophrenically veering between egotistical vanity and brittle, crippling despair. In one pivotal scene featuring Gyuri Sarossy’s quietly self-absorbed Trigorin, the writer’s mental masturbation is strikingly paired with its physical counterpart – a wanker in every sense – as he brings himself to climax while Irina hails him with a verbal assault of praise. Alexander Cobb’s whining Konstantin is little better, weakly reaching for a transcendental ideal that is quickly overshadowed by jealousy, while the excellent Abigail Cruttenden as his narcissistic mother incessantly struts, preens and flirts, the consummate actress in love with her own performance.

For all that stultifying stasis is foregrounded – stillness is central to the make-up of the scenes, while McIntyre is a director unafraid of onstage silences – there remains a certain muscularity to this production, a momentum beneath the lethargy. This is largely down to the vital aggression of Donnelly’s text, fuelled with much the same expletive-laced energy as Benedict Andrews’ revelatory, vodka-drenched Three Sisters, yet equally capable of subdued introspection. Chekhov’s characters might be in love with talking, favouring philosophising over action, but here no words feel wasted. As one character sardonically puts it, “there’s an art to tedium”, and it’s one that this production masters with fresh, fierce, invigorating intelligence.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.