Cynics had quipped that the only act of violence or mutilation not portrayed on the Royal Court's studio stage in recent months was trepanning. That omission has now been rectified in James Stock's thematically dense, but deft and intelligent, reworking of his 1990 play The Shaming Of Bright Millar.
In a small north Cornish coastal community, fisherman Frank faces the dual pressures of a failing business and frustration at his inability to communicate with his autistic son Billy. Teenager Kathleen, the only person who enjoys Billy's company, has her own twin ghosts: the memory of her mother's self-immolation and a series of increasingly ghastly dreams about the treatment meted out to early nineteenth-century folk figure Bright Millar. Samantha Morton's characterisation conveys the sharp contrast between Kathleen's traumatised alienation from her waking life and the impassioned horror of her dream-world.
Kathleen's German-born grandmother, meanwhile, relives the events surrounding her starring role in a Nazi propaganda film which glorified that régime's eugenic programme of sterilisation and extermination, and faces her own imminent death. Maria passively acquiesces in both past and present events: Bridget Turner captures the hollow despair of someone who has attempted to rediscover her rage and whose failure both grimly amuses and fatalistically disillusions her.
Through these triple timelines, Stock assembles a mosaic examination of questions of mental, physical, spiritual and even moral health. Four of his characters die in the course of two and a half hours; each death occurs because someone – occasionally the victim – judges that they have lost the right to live. Rhetoric about the social value of such "cases" thinly conceals notions of genetic and social purity, but in each instance the real motive is an angry impotence in the face of an irreparable "defect": syphilis, chronic depression or simply old age.
The play rigorously avoids becoming an essay. In a couple of neat dramatic
reversals, the torture-chamber laboratory is located not in Nazi Germany
but in Kathleen's nineteenth-century dreams, in which young Bright has
a hole drilled into his skull in order, says the doctor, to allow him to
go swiftly to his rest in a state of redemption which will serve as a moral
lesson to those of the parish. (The very word "trepanning", it strikes
one irreverently, sounds like the name of a Cornish village.)
In contrast, Hitler appears as a largely comical figure nonetheless capable of putting monstrous ideas into action. Robin Soans, too, excellently contrasts his performance as Frank, unable to understand his tribulations, with a Schubert-playing Führer (take me to your lieder?) possessed of a mundane yet demonic certainty. His most incandescent rage is that of the vegetarian at finding that his buffet includes pieces of chicken, and he frets that the German eugenic programme is failing to surpass that instituted some years earlier in America.
Timelines blur and, under Mark Wing-Davey's perceptive direction, almost every horror is undercut: these events demonstrate not just the banality of evil, but its near-absurdity. Euthanasia, suicide, Vernichtung and the like are a measure not of the victims' inadequacy, but of our own.
Both the dramatic and the intellectual cogency of this piece increase with time. After his George Devine Award-winning Blue Night In The Heart Of The West, James Stock has confirmed himself as both a thoughtful and a skilful playwright.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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