Originally written for Exeunt.
If stress is the number one modern malady, sleeplessness might just be a close second. Distracted by technology, preoccupied with work and perpetually pumped with caffeine, it is harder now than ever to get a good night’s kip. This is certainly the experience of Rodrigo García’s restless narrator – hence the cumbersome title of this slender, slippery monologue. Railing against the tedium of insomnia and the spectres of capitalism that keep him up at night, García’s unnamed protagonist is adamant that “you have to do something”.
His idea of doing something is blowing his life’s savings, shipping over a fashionable philosopher and breaking into Madrid’s Prado museum out of hours to gaze at Goya’s Black Paintings. An unlikely brand of rebellion. Along for the ride are his two young sons, who in Jude Christian’s bold production take on a startling, scene-stealing form. Joining lone actor Steffan Rhodri on stage are two small, cute and surprisingly loud piglets, greeted with a ripple of excitement from the audience. Immediately, we are in surreal territory.
Like the piglets, who wriggle and squeal in Rhodri’s arms, García’s play is difficult to get a grip on. The furious, fidgety stream of thought goes round in circles – or, perhaps more accurately, spirals, as we never return to quite the same place as before. The narrator is at crisis point, that much is clear, his words a wounded howl against the plastic deities of Coca-Cola and Disneyland. There are hints at a fractured family and a lifetime of disappointments, but all we can be certain of is an underlying queasiness towards the modern world. As our protagonist succinctly puts it, “life’s a bloody mess”.
If modern existence is a cesspit, then we are all rolling in the filth. This is perhaps the point of the piglets, who also stand in for the animal urges and images of gluttony that crop up periodically in García’s text. When the animals’ unpredictable bathroom habits play momentary havoc on stage, it seems apt that Rhodri is literally cleaning up shit. But beyond these obvious associations, the piglets also have a distancing effect, enhancing the protagonist’s dislocation from his sons, the world around him, and possibly even his own existence.
The strange inner world of García’s narrator is strikingly drawn out by Christian’s production, which has created a captivating visual and aural landscape. The show opens with Rhodri’s tall form crammed into a grubby miniature kitchen mounted on the back wall, which suddenly begins to turn on its axis; the world is off-kilter and the protagonist is a hamster trapped inside an ever-turning wheel. This visual fluency is characteristic of Fly Davis’ design, which hems Rhodri and the piglets inside a clinical white space, surrounded by toys as brittle as the happiness they promise. Adrienne Quartly’s uneasy sound design, meanwhile, presses in on an already beleaguered mind with a tumult of heartbeats, ticking clocks and blaring sirens.
At the centre of this bewildering, claustrophobic world, Rhodri makes a compellingly embattled anti-hero. In spite of the anger, self-destruction and unsavoury streak of misogyny glimpsed in the character written by García, Rhodri renders him surprisingly sympathetic – more of a bitter lost soul than a listless misanthrope. There is also a sense, supported by the visual language of the piece, that his response to the modern world is the only one left available; even if his pursuit of Goya ultimately lacks meaning, it’s better than the Disneyland his sons would prefer. García’s short monologue might be a frustrating, evasive slip of a thing, but this arresting production makes its searching, impotent fury feel uncannily resonant.