As Simon Stephens’s Motortown completes its run on the main stage of the Royal Court, the fall out from the Iraq war continues in the Theatre Upstairs with this subtle, insinuating, beautifully written new play by the American playwright Christopher Shinn.
Whereas Stephens’ play depicts the brutalisation of a returning British squaddie in Essex, creating a psychological continuum from Basra to Barking, Dying City is a nocturnal Manhattan post mortem for an American officer who has shot himself in despair in Iraq.
The seven short scenes (running time, ninety minutes) switch between January 2004, on the eve of Craig’s departure, and July 2005, the anniversary of his death. Craig’s wife/widow Kelly (Sian Brooke), a psychotherapist, is packing up her books to the endless television background accompaniment of Law and Order and Jon Stewart. She’s moving out to start over in Ann Arbor.
She is visited by Craig’s identical twin brother, Peter, an actor, who has broken up with his boyfriend and walked off the stage in the middle of a performance of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. What could have been a technical embarrassment – the same actor, Andrew Scott, playing both brothers – is turned by Scott and director James Macdonald into a touching and increasingly poetic device.
Craig’s emails, which Peter has kept and which Kelly finally reads, reveal the extent to which he is disturbed by events in Iraq. But the cumulative revelations about parental authority, Kelly’s marriage, the unresolved tensions between the twins, even Craig’s failure to complete his student dissertation on William Faulkner, also create a picture of a family at odds with itself, a modern echo of the Eugene O'Neill play. The war in Iraq has jolted everything into a more disturbing focus, just as the twins’ father’s time in Vietnam indelibly marked their younger years.
At one point Craig wonders if he might not create a one-man show from the emails, a delicious dig at the liberal instincts behind the recent plethora of documentary drama. Scott makes the slightest of adjustments between the brothers, the actor having just that greater sense of self-awareness, and helplessness, about his personal relationships.
You feel sorriest of all, though, for Kelly, whom Brooke plays with a still and disarming gravity as her world crashes around her. Everyone was changed by 9/11, and Shinn’s play – beautifully designed and lit by Peter Mumford – is an impressive analysis of the collective American psyche rooted in details of real family life.
- Michael Coveney