As you ascend the stairs to the Bush Theatre, the walls are plastered with messages protesting the Arts Council cuts. The Bush is in line to lose 40 percent of its £180,000 annual grant. If the theatre’s appeal is not successful, I shall boil my own head in despair.
For the best argument for the necessity of the Bush’s survival under new artistic director Josie Rourke – and, for heaven’s sake, how many talented 31-year-old directors are prepared these days to take on the task of running a top theatre? – is, as always, in the black box at the summit.
Neil LaBute is the most interesting of contemporary American dramatists, and it is absolutely right that the Bush should host this UK premiere of two recent short, sharp plays – Land of the Dead plays for 20 minutes, Helter Skelter for just under an hour – in association with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford – another, very different, invaluable venue disgracefully targeted by the bonkers bureaucrats.
Patricia Benecke, directing for the new Dialogue Productions company, brings out all the bitterness and savagery in two marital encounters that end in disaster and tragedy. One doesn’t want to give too much away.
The shorter play, first performed in New York on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, hinges on a build-up to an abortion. In the second, premiered in Germany last year, a pregnant woman learns that her husband had an affair for six years with her own sister.
The random nature of our lives and the extent to which we can and cannot control them may be the larger theme. But as always with LaBute, it’s the precision of expression, the needle in the dialogue that pins your ears back. LaBute is both like Harold Pinter and not like him at all. And he has an uncanny instinct for inflating a dramatic crisis at its nerviest point of contact.
Ruth Gemmell offers two brilliantly observed portraits of a woman at either end of the pregnancy cycle. John Kirk as a bluff office-worker up there in the cloud-capped towers, and Patrick Driver as the cowardly, jumpy husband meeting his spouse heavy with child (and shopping) in a chic mid-town restaurant, are both right on the button of LaBute’s evasive but revelatory self-justifications.
Sara Perks has designed a shimmering, minimal set of steel and light while the music of the city, both humdrum and menacing, is deftly conjured on Nikola Kodjabashia’s soundtrack. We take high production standards for granted at the Bush. They match the usual level of the writing which the Arts Council is undermining in favour of what, exactly? Clowns on stilts?
- Michael Coveney