Martin Crimp’s latest play The City received its world premiere on Tuesday (29 April 2008, previews from 24 April) at the Royal Court Theatre, where it runs in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 7 June 2008.
Crimp wrote the dark comic mystery as a companion piece to his play The Country, which premiered at the Royal Court in May 2000. The premiere production reunites Crimp and director Katie Mitchell, whose collaborations include The Country and Face to the Wall at the Court and Crimp’s new version of The Seagull at the National. Crimp’s long-term association with the Royal Court began in 1997 when his play Attempts on Her Life premiered at the London venue. Mitchell recently re-explored that play, in an NT production last year.
The City features three characters - city worker Chris (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), language translator Clair (Hattie Morahan) and nurse/neighbor Jenny (Amanda Hale) (See News, 4 Mar 2008) - as they fight to make sense of a surreal and collapsing world. Stage Design is by Vicky Mortimer, lighting by Paul Constable and sound by Gareth Fry.
Most first night critics were disappointed by The City, its “loquacious content” and failure “to ignite” making it “fatally underpowered”. Katie Mitchell’s direction garnered mixed responses, with some critics applauding her “superbly disciplined production” while others tired of her evident reverence for Crimp’s piece. Benedict Cumberbatch, Hattie Morahan and Amanda Hale were widely praised for their performances, although overall it was felt that they couldn’t save a production that was “all enigma and self-conscious artistry”. The Guardian’s Michael Billington provided a contrasting view – he praised Crimp for his “subtle articulation” and concluded that here was a “writer in full control of his talent”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) - “Strange, mysterious but not very interesting is how I would sum up Martin Crimp’s 80-minute play … This companion piece to Crimp’s The Country (2000), is indulgently directed by Katie Mitchell, and fails to ignite on a stage where marital incompatibility has been hot from Look Back in Anger to Ted Whitehead’s explosive Alpha Beta and beyond. The aesthetic idea is one of bland anonymity. Each scene is interrupted by a hideous pseudo-concrete curtain descending like a guillotine … Crimp’s style is curdling dangerously into sub-Pinterish elusiveness. Perhaps there is some buried guilt about ‘originality’ (Crimp has been lately lost in translation of Moliere, Ionesco, Chekhov and Brecht.) The whole play is finally encased in a literary conceit, although Chris’ defiant ‘reality’ is to take a new job as a supermarket assistant like an old school friend. Somebody once asked Christopher Hampton was he writing a new play or was it still ‘just’ the translations. Crimp’s effort to make theatrical metaphor of this tragic dilemma is admirable but fatally underpowered.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Although this is the most disquieting play in London, there is a curious exhilaration about both the performance and Crimp's confrontation with our perpetual unease. Crimp works through half hints and verbal links rather than linear narrative … You don't have to share Crimp's bleak vision to relish its subtle articulation, or Katie Mitchell's superbly disciplined production. Vicki Mortimer's design has a fine monochrome austerity, and Gareth Fry's sound is marked by a low hum suggesting Tennyson's ‘murmuring of innumerable bees’. Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan are also impeccably fraught as Chris and Clair: they suggest a couple tiptoeing on eggshells - and there is a fine moment when, as Morahan's face lights up in describing Mohamed, Cumberbatch shields his eyes in sadness. Amanda Hale also turns Jenny into a haunting mix of recrimination and gawkiness, not least when she totters around in absurd stilettos. But the brilliance of this 80-minute play lies in how it allows the audience to create its own story. And when Crimp introduces a child into the action we become shockingly aware of the inherited damage of future generations. We emerge deeply disturbed but aware of a writer in full control of his talent.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “I'm beginning to think that Martin Crimp has delighted us long enough. In his early plays, particularly those first staged at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, I found myself intrigued by his spare style and the underlying atmosphere of unease in his work. Yes, his writing owed a lot to Pinter, an influence he has never outgrown, but, like Pinter, Crimp got under your skin and niggled away in the imagination. Twenty years on, however, he still seems to be churning out endless variations on the same theme - all enigma and self-conscious artistry, cool in tone, often with a background of war or atrocity, and intent on communicating little more than a sense that things aren't quite right with either the world or his characters. It's not enough. With the exception of a splendid adaptation of Molière's The Misanthrope, I don't think Crimp has ever reduced me to either wild laughter or sympathetic sorrow. In his work a terrible, tasteful aridity is born … Katie Mitchell directs with a feeling of awed reverence which suggests that she believes she has a classic on her hands (though when she is directing a bona fide classic, she treats it merely as a springboard for her own ego); and Benedict Cumberbatch, Hattie Morahan and Amanda Hale give exemplary, subtly nuanced performances, despite being trapped in the straitjacket of Crimp's icy-hearted artistic control.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Trying to explain the meaning of Martin Crimp's new play is rather like groping through a maze on a foggy autumn afternoon as twilight falls. It's a process that intrigues and mystifies, irritates and engrosses. At first it looks as if The City is set in familiar terrain. Here is a middle-class couple, Benedict Cumberbatch's Chris and Hattie Morahan's emotionally vehement Clair, a translator, arriving home to meet across the kitchen table and exchange pleasantries. The fact that designer Vicki Mortimer fills the stage with empty space, apart from a white table, wine glasses and futuristic, rectangular lights enclosed within the walls only engenders a hint of oddness. In Crimp-land, however, nothing is what it seems. Alienation, streaks of black comedy and even apocalypse hover just around the corner, amplified by ominous sounds and allusions to hot weather … Katie Mitchell's fine production, exuding anxiety and tension, cannot disguise the fact that the inventive form of Crimp's play is more interesting than its loquacious content.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (two stars) - “What will the critic who described Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, which the National revived last year, as so obscure, so terrible that ‘one flees from it as from the Tower of Babel’ be saying about Crimp’s new play The City? His comparisons are more likely to be Bedlam or the Slough of Despond or, even more damagingly, an American academic’s thesis on deconstructionism in the Post-Modern era. And though I rather admired Attempts, an impressionistic piece that brought to life a fragmentary, fin-de-siècle world, I must say that The City left me feeling more impatient than enlightened … What’s happening? Why are Jenny, the foreign writer’s sister-in-law and Chris and Clair’s daughter, a little girl who strums the piano and recites obscene limericks, all dressed as nurses? Why must Chris, having indeed lost his job, become a butcher at Sainsbury’s, complete with hat and badge? Above all, what’s the point of a denouement in which Clair decides that most of the characters, perhaps including Chris and herself, are her own inventions? Well, perhaps this is part of Crimp’s attempt to tell us that we’re disoriented people inhabiting a disorienting world that’s also insecure and dangerous … But I left the theatre feeling that this was more paranoid fancy than genuine threat.”
- by Kate Jackson