New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 21 October, 1999

In the fantasy movie The Princess Bride, Wallace Shawn plays the self-proclaimed most intelligent man in the world. Sometimes it can almost seem as if the same persona informs the authoring of his own plays: they are very New York-intellectual, but concerned less with individual, emotional navel-gazing à la Woody Allen than with decorously, articulately flaying the meat of societal assumptions and collective self-image off our fundamentally animal skeleton.

In Our Late Night, first performed (to great hostility) in Manhattan in 1975 and now staged by the Royal Court in a revival of its "productions without décor" concept, the bulk of the 50-minute piece depicts exchanges among well-heeled, thirty- or fortysomething Manhattanites at a party. In each case, though, conventional chit-chat veers off at a disturbing tangent: the woman (Jacqueline Defferary) who claims to live off raw pigeons, the man (Stephen Dillane) recounting a prolonged tropical bout of compulsive priapism, at one point even copulating with the shore of a lake. Guests vie with one another to have a malady more deserving of attention and sympathy, or begin fingering each other openly. References to animals or animalism keep discreetly cropping up, to underline Shawn's point that, at bottom, all we are concerned about are the same root issues: food, sex and pain. However thick the veneer of social and verbal articulation we coat the bestial basics with, they will out. In a sense, the real perversion is not the events recounted or enacted on the stage, but the complex of rituals and forms we impose on them.

Shawn's point is trenchantly made for him at one point by the audience. During this chain of bizarre exchanges, a brief conversation crops up about mutilating or abusing children in some unspecified but evidently sexual way, and a little later two men discuss the erotic quality of the downy hair on their young daughters' legs. The Royal Court audience, which had hitherto been chuckling indulgently at the genteel grotesqueries described, fell completely quiet. It was the silence of conditioned fright suddenly the topic of conversation had become unforgivably taboo (to a much greater extent than at the time of the play's composition). As the artifice of social conventions was laid bare on stage, a social convention obliged the audience to lapse into stony silence.

Caryl Churchill's direction, on the set of Mark Ravenhill's Some Explicit Polaroids strewn with huge beanbags, shows deliciously tart attention to "reaction acting" as much as to those actors delivering the lines themselves. Shawn's piece succinctly, eloquently and more palpably than ever shows us the folly of the airs we give ourselves as a society, and does so without the prolix self-regard of, say, his The Designated Mourner.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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