Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
  Opened 6 April, 2009

When Wallace Shawn wrote The Fever in 1990, much of its content must have seemed either metaphorical or wildly exaggerated for purposes of liberal guilt. Now, revived to open a Shawn season at the Royal Court, it feels horrifyingly as if the world has fallen into line with the play’s grimmest excesses.
The 90-minute monologue is delivered by a prosperous, moderately intellectual visitor to an unnamed country, who in a fit of night sweats free-associates through contemporary world events, their own past life and imagined episodes with little indication which is which. The outer and inner worlds are alike dominated by the narrator’s own complacent class, who give “the poor” (the phrase tolls through the play) vague promises of some amelioration in the future, but when pressed resort to oppression, torture and the language of totalitarianism. The shock, for me, came in realising how much of that intemperate language has passed into the mainstream of political discourse in the eras of Gingrichism and then the War on Terror. The balance of global wealth is no more equal now, various sub-groups of “the poor” are now better organised and more violent, and the narrator class seem less inclined to vex ourselves about it. The piece can almost sound like agitprop today.
Dominic Cooke sets the performance on a deliberately undesigned stage, with no black drapes or flats, a couple of flight cases and some stacking chairs on which Claire Higgins, dressed in a simple white shirt and jeans, sits for much of her performance. She adopts a mild East Coast American accent as if to confirm that her character comes from Shawn’s own milieu, even though her origin (and even gender) is unspecified. She speaks in fairly moderate tones throughout: Shawn’s plays are not about passion, shrillness would tear their webs. I have to admit it is easy to drift in and out of the words, as if partaking of the same fever, which is the unreality of comfortable modern existence. Ultimately, though, the play (originally written for home performance before perhaps a dozen spectators at a time, almost as a dinner-party indigestif) remains a work of liberal guilt, a self-indictment of our complacency yet also behaving as if the resulting discomfiture were all the punishment or penance we needed to undergo.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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