For three weeks, Battersea Arts Centre has become a temple to America's greatest living exponent of oblique drama, Sam Shepard. His face (or at any rate the left half of it) gazes down from walls; the café and bar play a selection of Shepard-programmed music ranging from Eric Dolphy to his former New York cohort Patti Smith and Ry Cooder's soundtrack to Paris, Texas (co-scripted by Shepard); and a number of extracts, readings and treatments of his plays are presented as late-night shows in addition to the three main Shepard evening productions.
The main performance space hosts States Of Shock, premièred off Broadway in 1991 and an excellent introduction to Shepardian arcana. Into an ordinary diner come a traumatised, wheelchair-ridden young man and a colonel in pompously over-decorated dress uniform. Their meal is interspersed with, and finally overridden by, the Colonel's desire to force young Stubbs (a remarkable performance by Jason Done) to relive the battle in which the Colonel's son was killed; as the 70-minute show progresses, fragments of truth emerge, but Shepard leaves it to the audience to assemble these into a cubist picture of a family in denial. At the next table, the difficulties of Mr and Mrs Middle-America draw indirect parallels with the tensions and complexities of the nation as a whole. Behind a gauze at the rear of the stage, a couple of percussionists are let loose periodically, though not often enough to create the oppressive sense of distant artillery fire which director Michael Kingsbury intends. This is weird stuff, to be sure, but first-rate weird stuff.
Studio Two's 85-minute show, Suicide In B Flat (1976), is if anything even more tangential. Director Andrea Brooks, fast making a fringe name for herself, adroitly follows Shepard's advice not to try to "solve the play". That task is left to a couple of investigators (Ian Barnes and the fine Shaun Prendergast), and it is one at which they inevitably fail. Is composer Niles really dead? If so, why and how? If not, whose corpse, its face blown off, have they discovered in his apartment? In either case, what kind of limbo are Niles and his childlike companion Paulette inhabiting, that they can half-kill the investigators at close range without being noticed? Don't ask me... or Shepard. What matters are the tensions and contrasts between the men in suits, a couple of jazzers who worked with Niles and the ethereal duo – the interplay of mentalities, reason versus instincts and several conflicting instincts at that. It is as if the only way to approach profundity is through a partial and hallucinatory modern fable; it is also the closest I have seen to conveying the tangled spirit of modern jazz in drama.
A Lie Of The Mind (1985) in Studio One is the only two-act play on show here. Its narrative is more linear and bears a closer relationship to reality, but within this framework sit two families in which each member has his or her own quirks and dysfunctions. After Jake has left his wife Beth for dead on a highway, he retreats into psychosis in his own home whilst she slowly recovers from severe brain damage in the warped bosom of her family. Melissa Chalsma is terrific as Beth, her elliptical outbursts (which sound like e e cummings at his knottiest) serving as the principal vehicle for Shepard's authorial comments on the human mind and heart. The patterning of the play is a little too deliberate, with motifs being picked up from scene to alternating-family scene and great care taken to display the central lie in each character's mind, be it a concept of family, love or morality.
For this reason, although Toby Reisz's production (with its largely American cast) is every bit as tight and intelligent as the other two, A Lie Of The Mind is somehow less satisfying: the meaning is delivered on a platter rather than our having to track it down through snows of bewilderment. Shepard is a writer for whom the word "difficult" is a term of approval, and the work on show at Battersea ably demonstrates that clarity and directness are not at all the same thing.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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