Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
  Opened 27 May, 2009

When a character in Wallace Shawn’s 1985 play asked to be called Miss Cat, I saw a couple of colleagues exchange here-we-go-again looks. In fact, this piece bears little resemblance to the same author’s protracted kitty-fiddling riff Grasses Of A Thousand Colours currently playing upstairs at the Court… heavens, it even includes longish segments in which characters speak to each other onstage. It does, however, share a fundamental attitude: a profound ambivalence towards his native New York intellectual set. Aunt Dan And Lemon may be set in England, but it is indistinguishable from Shawn’s usual dramatic NYC socially, or even lexically – it features a London in which people live “on the South Side”.
Almost all of Shawn’s plays contain indictments of what he sees as the solipsism and social detachment of this stratum; some (including Grasses) visit upon them an implicitly deserved apocalypse of one kind or another. But whether intentionally or not, Shawn usually ends up showing a kind of admiration of the Nietzschean purity of will embodied in such selfishness. It is not unlike the canard of yore, “Love her or hate her, you’ve got to admire Thatcher’s conviction.” Here, too, the central emblem of the loathed value system is cripplingly dated. What feels like half an hour of the 110-minute playing time is devoted to Aunt Dan’s increasingly fervent championing of Henry Kissinger’s Vietnam policy; already a decade old when the play premièred, it now – notwithstanding more recent echoes in the Iraq venture – feels like a curio.
Dominic Cooke’s production is good on feeling, on texture. Scenes flow into each other without demarcation, and characters do not so much enter and exit as simply seem to materialise in the stream of Lemon’s reminiscences of her childhood and the stories told her by “Aunt” Dan of her friends. Lorraine Ashbourne as Dan never quite scintillates enough to explain Lemon’s fascination with her, although she is undoubtedly a powerful presence. Paul Chahidi is an unforgiving figure as Lemon’s American father, and Scarlett Johnson (who could build a career out of typographical errors) is both alluring and heartless as a siren from Dan’s recollections. Jane Horrocks has little to do as Lemon except bookend the memory sequence with remarks on the dedication of the Nazis to realising their own value system – that authorial ambivalence at its most naked. But, as Nietzsche remarked, if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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