States Of Shock / The Sweetest Swing In Baseball / Festen
Various venues
March/April, 2004

A truncated Prompt Corner this issue, even by the standards of slacker Shuttleworth.  In fact, I saw even more shows than usual during the two weeks in question, but fifteen of the nineteen were at the National Student Drama Festival in Scarborough, the subject of a separate report at the back of the magazine.  Also back there you’ll find samples of the writing of the two young reviewers who won TR subscriptions as a result of their writing at that Festival: Owen Kingston, winner of the Theatre Record Young Critic’s Award, And Chris Wilkinson, last year’s TR award-winner who this year secured the Sunday Times Harold Hobson Student Drama Critic Award.

Of the remaining four shows, one, Doña Rosita The Spinster, is reviewed with my Financial Times hat on in the body of this issue.  That leaves me holding a trey, which even a non-poker-player like me knows is an impossibly low hand.  So I fold.

Dishearteningly truistic

Luckily, they’re all decent, substantial bits of work, in their various ways... even if that way is simply catching a historical moment.  The Arcola’s revival of Sam Shepard’s States Of Shock reverberates powerfully across the thirteen years between the “first” Gulf War, to which the play is a dramatic response, and the current, stubbornly persistent imbroglio.  But I’m with Lyn Gardner on this one: there’s not actually that much to the play.  It’s an example of that strain in Shepard’s writing where you gee yourself up to assume there must be something there that’s profound yet opaque, because otherwise he’s just using all the gratuitous weirdness to make a bunch of dishearteningly truistic points.

Director Nathan Osgood economically uses striped drapes to remake the Arcola space into an in-the-round auditorium with, I suspect, deliberate overtones of the big top.  In this he is both helped and hindered by one of the Arcola’s great central beams; it makes a useful central pillar/pole, but also obscures views for various small groups in the audience, and Osgood’s blocking only goes so far to overcoming the problem.  I know that Lola Rafique’s character isn’t a major figure in the drama, and she probably isn’t called upon to do much subtle facial acting, but hell, it would have been nice to have actually seen her face at some point, however briefly.

Unfussy but precise

As for subtle facial acting, Gillian Anderson turns in one of the finest performances of same that you’ll see for many a day, in The Sweetest Swing In Baseball at the Royal Court.  (Imagine, though, what must have been the expression on the former Agent Scully’s face when she first opened the script to find she was being asked to play another mysterious Dana.)  Susannah Clapp’s paragraph in her Observer review sums it up excellently: this is television facial acting, which somehow manages to focus your own vision so that your brain translates it into extreme close-up.  For me, Anderson’s vocal performance in the first phase of the play is similarly economical: you can hear her character’s determined bleakness of perspective in the unfussy but precise weight she gives each word, the ever so slightly self-conscious cadence patterns of banal phrases.  It’s a pinpoint identification of the depressive’s “talent” (and, like Paul Taylor, I write from experience) which is somewhat grossly parodied in the final scenes.

I don’t find Gilman’s play quite as diaphanous as some other reviewers, but it does begin to take some rather easy choices as it progresses.  Compare, if you can find a copy, an episode of 1970s BBC TV war drama Colditz entitled Tweedledum, in which Michael Bryant played a psychiatrist who began feigning insanity in order to fool the Germans into repatriating him, but fell genuine prey to the condition before he was released.  Thirty years on, that performance still haunts me.  Altogether more bizarre is another televisual association: when Dana is impersonating Darryl Strawberry, a baseball player about whom she knows virtually nothing, Anderson reminds me oddly of comedienne Ellen DeGeneres when trying to stop her wacky schemes falling wackily apart.  Speaking of wackiness, I see that among those thanked in the programme is Michael Craig-Martin, the man responsible for the 1973 conceptual art piece An Oak Tree consisting of a glass of water on a shelf, which can be seen in Tate Modern.  That’s my cue to reiterate that although Anderson’s performance is often wonderful, the play itself might not be everyone’s cup of larch.

Under the microscope

Getting admirably away from its screen associations is David Eldridge’s adaptation, and Rufus Norris’s production, of the Dogme film Festen.  This would have slotted perfectly into my meditations on power in the last Prompt Corner.  (Indeed, I began writing about it at that time, only to discover that the play opened one day too late for the issue.)  It puts under the microscope not just the tyrannical aspect of child sexual abuse (in which, psychologists tell us, power is often a greater motivating factor than attraction toward the young victim), but various dynamics of sibling rivalry, vectors within the family and between them and outsiders, and an indictment of an entire class, with its formal-etiquette complacency masking the kind of odiousness that can sing racist rhymes to a black man’s face and then condemn him for not joining in the fun.  Norris’s production deserves to be praised at greater length than this, but as so often, what it boils down to is a matter of being awesomely meticulous in every respect, ensuring that everything falls together just so; Paul Taylor’s review delightfully captures that “Is it just me?” puzzlement when, all too rarely, it strikes in a positive direction.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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