Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Theatre Review: In the Republic of Happiness (Royal Court)

Or, Uncle Bob Cometh. Then Goeth. Then Cometh back again someplace else. Martin Crimp started 2012 with a new play, Play House, at the Orange Tree, an enigmatic portrait of youthful coupledom incorporating existential malaise, fridge-cleaning and a topless handstand. He ends the year at the other theatre with which he’s long been associated, with another new piece that’s a more bracing proposition than Play House, albeit one that looks likely to divide audiences, deeply. (“The worst play I’ve seen in 2012,” was one early tweeter’s verdict.) Cheekily subtitled “an entertainment in three parts,” In the Republic of Happiness is rather different to anything that Crimp’s attempted before. At times, it’s as if a playwright supergroup made up of Dylan Thomas, Bertolt Brecht and Sarah Kane had combined to kick the arse of an Alan Ayckbourn play - Season’s Greetings, specifically. And regardless of the patchiness of the result that’s definitely a project I can get behind.

Proceedings start in the realm of the utmost convention with a family gathering comprising put-upon Mum (Emma Fielding), deaf Dad (Stuart McQuarrie), porn-loving Grandpa (Peter Wight), smug Grandma (Anna Calder-Marshall, a standout) and bickering sisters (Ellie Kendrick and Seline Hizli) tucking into Christmas lunch. The first jolt is familiar enough: the unexpected appearance of Mum’s brother Bob (Paul Ready) and, a bit later, his wife Madeline (Michelle Terry), who - about to leave the country for good, apparently - let loose with a tirade of contemptuous invective directed at each family member in turn.

But just as the audience is settling themselves for a round of comfortably discomforting (and all-too-predictable) barbs and revelations from the family closet, Crimp pulls the rug out from under us. For Bob and Madeline’s appearance fractures not only the family but also the very foundation, style and genre of the play in which they’re appearing, which suddenly morphs into a hybrid species of chat show, confessional, and concert (with Terry in particular revealing herself as a commanding singer, indeed).

The abrupt shift from "naturalism" to an altogether odder mode - in which the actors abandon their characters to speak to the audience directly as a kind of collective consciousness - won’t appeal to those who like their plays to announce their identities early on. But it makes In the Republic of Happiness the particular, confounding and sometimes thrilling experience that it is. The lengthy middle section skewers and satirises a range of current obsessions, with the characters musing on security, identity, agency, the seductions of trauma culture and self-empowerment rhetoric. What keeps you (or at least what kept me) on board are the great rhythms of Crimp’s dialogue, and how surprisingly juicy and funny much of it is, as the speeches become shared arias of blame, complaint, compliance and self-help-schooled self-belief. I was reminded of David Grieg's comments regarding Sarah Kane’s Crave: “The effect of the piece … is surprisingly musical. The text demands attendance to its rhythms in performance, revealing its meanings not line by line, but rather... in the hypnotic play of different voices and themes.” That’s the case here, as the play swerves from poetic reflection to absolute absurdism ("There was trauma in my boss’s past. Why else would she poke a sandwich?") without giving you much time to catch your breath in between.

Though the cast handle these shifts with aplomb, Dominic Cooke’s production might benefit from a wilder approach to the material. And the poorly written and patience-testing final scene seems to me a flat-out mistake. But by turns annoying and insightful, penetrating and pretentious, this play that subverts itself so thoroughly is as formally daring and challenging a work as I’ve seen on stage this year. See it, debate it, have your own qualms about it.


  1. This review is spot on. The play is messy, sometimes portentous, occasionally unfocused, but what I liked about it - apart from the formal and thematic details you isolate here - was its powerful political dimension. What the play was exploring, it seemed to me, was the dark underside of the contemporary demand for happiness. We will do so much, too much perhaps, to satisfy the cultural demand for good feeling-tone; and we will sanction much too much viciousness to protect the happiness we think we deserve (and this is also a play in which therapy segues into interrogation and the threat of torture: Why do you deprive me of sleep? Why do you wake me up to ask me if I am happy?). Some of the play's best moments came from the chilling ambivalence of certain flatly rendered statements such as "I separate my legs for security" (am I being policed at the airport or policing myself by allowing myself to be sexually manipulated in the name of, well, relationships, normalcy and "happiness")? Some of the (many) 1-star blog reviews seem to forget that Crimp began by giving them the melodramatic potboiler set-up they seemed to expect (Xmas dinner at the Queen Vic, as it were) and then throwing it away as dull, reactionary, out of date, just another bloody night at the theatre. And how they continue to squeal at the bad manners of it all . . .

    1. In response to your last point about having the rug pulled out from under our little blogging-socks, I actually found the first section even more dull than the two that followed, so I'm not sure if that really is the reason for my poor opinion of the play. I didn't find the play provocative, revolutionary, thought-provoking or anything other than a few tedious hours spent in a darked room with occasional bouts of toe-tapping music.

      Though, perhaps it's just my own contemporary demand for happiness that makes me say that...

  2. Haha. Indeed; perhaps it is. Well, most people seem to agree with you. I must say, though, given how many times people say that the play was boring and that they'd seen it all before anyway, I do feel like responding "Really" and "So What"? After all, we've all seen most things before one way or another (true originality being difficult). Perhaps my view of things was a bit marked by the fact that I went to see Republic straight after seeing Constellations. Now there is a deeply unoriginal and tedious bit of writing, a bog-standard Rom-Com gussied up with a bit of GCSE Physics, a piece of writing almostt insistinguishable in its mode and affect from Sleepless in Seattle and yet it is lauded as brave, original, contemporary, unmissable, and so on and so on. Now if there had been an interval during that load of over-reviewed shlock I really would have left. After that, Crimp seemed both purge and cure, whatever his longeurs.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I can only add that, on reading the play-text over the past few days, I'm even more impressed by Crimp's daring in his structuring of the piece (final scene reads better than it played, I think) and I think the language is truly amazing in places. Excellent point about the play's political dimensions which I stupidly neglected in the review.

    And Anonymous: I couldn't agree more on CONSTELLATIONS, which a friend and I saw a couple of weeks ago and both found ludicrously overrated. Original? LOVE STORY meets INTIMATE EXCHANGES with a honey-comb shaped lump of HUMBLE BOY in the middle. Also found Sally Hawkins irritating in the extreme.

  4. Torture. If there had been an interval the theatre would have emptied. This playwright has forgotten he is writing for a live audience. I was so traumatised I have started going to the cinema where you can walk out without disturbing the actors.

  5. No: he is alive to the fact that he is not writing for a TV audience. Nor is it true that "the theatre would have emptied." The theatre was full of laughter on both nights I saw the play (on the second night a woman left and came back in, convulsed as she had been by a fit of giggling). But don't worry: Constellations is still offering fake pathos and second-rate generic rom-com treats in the West End. Do book early for Xmas.