The Royal Court has at last come up with a play on its main stage that is worthy of celebrating 50 years of the English Stage Company. Simon Stephens’ Motortown charts a bleak homecoming and possesses three appropriate qualities: a monomaniac, psychotic hero in the vein of John Osborne’s misfits; a deeply awkward post-Sarah Kane challenge to the liberal consensus on both domestic violence and war-mongering; and an obvious, rather brilliant, debt of honour to the first European working class tragedy, Georg Buchner’s
The motortown in question is not Detroit, but Dagenham in Essex, home of the Ford plant in Britain. Danny (Daniel Mays) is an ex-soldier who has served in Basra during the recent conflict. Like Woyzeck, he has had “extraordinary dreams”, and he passes through the play’s eight scenes (the running time is 95 minutes) in a trance of dislocation and despair.
His retarded, or autistic (we are not sure which), brother tells him his girlfriend (Daniela Denby-Ashe) does not want to see him after receiving weird letters. He goes to see her anyway. He acquires a gun. Another friend, whose teenage girlfriend, Jade (Ony Uhiara), he invites out, says that “9/11” should be a film, and that he would happily pay to see a show called “Bulger: the Musical.”
This reference to the murder of a child by other children was too much for some audience members, who left the first night noisily. But it makes a valid point about our desensitised attitude towards modern horrors and indeed the spiritual vulgarity that causes them.
Ramin Gray’s superb production on a bare stage – with a bank of visible lights and visible stage management – has a beautiful choreography of chairs and movement that suggests an army drill routine. On the outing, Danny stabs Jade’s hand with a cigarette then shoots her at point blank range. He stuffs her in a body bag, leaving the stage covered in blood.
As the other actors mop up like an Olympic curling team, Purcell’s ineffably sad and glorious “Dido’s Lament” fills the theatre. An encounter with a free-spirited, colourless middle-class couple in a Southend hotel – Danny is invited to join them for sex – completes “one helluva day”. In Basra, he says, he never abused a prisoner: “It’s just you come back to this.”
As a picture of a personality in freefall, Daniel Mays’ performance is quite extraordinary: supple, aggressive, fearless, disturbing. And Stephens – who won the Olivier best play award for last year On the Shore of the Wide World at the National – has written an instant modern classic, the first major anti-anti-war play of this era.
- Michael Coveney