Stephen Dillane and American Ty Burrell star in the world premiere of Caryl Churchill’s latest play Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, where it received its world premiere on Wednesday (22 November 2006, rescheduled press night from 14 November following previews from 10 November).
The play, billed as a “searing exploration of transatlantic relations”, sees two men – one English, the other American – discussing world affairs while conducting one of their own. It’s directed by Royal Court associate director James Macdonald and designed by Eugene Lee, as part of the Sloane Square landmark’s year-long 50th anniversary season (See News, 29 Sep 2006). Its limited season continues until 22 December 2006.
Several critics were impressed with the way Churchill expressed her political views through the two lovers, and they were full of praise for Macdonald’s slick direction and the performances of the two actors. However, others felt – in some cases, very strongly – that Churchill was too “angry” and merely covered old ground in unintelligible sentences.
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (5 stars) – “What shock appeal Caryl Churchill's latest flight into theatrical fantasy generates!... This… is a politically motivated allegory, a theatrical depth charge, a tirade against the thrust of America's foreign policy and Tony Blair's obsequious support of George Bush in Iraq…. Stephen Dillane impressively plays diffident, charming Jack, as in Union Jack, who becomes sexually captivated by Ty Burrell's riveting, hunky, fearful Sam, as in America's Uncle Sam, who is half in love with torture too…. He vainly tries to escape his lover's domination, going home after daring to disagree on Israel, but abjectly returns to offer ‘the total commitment’ demanded of him…. Churchill makes this relationship of control and submission serve as a scathing analogy and critique of Blair's attitude to America. The black comedy might, however, have seemed a monotonously one-sided tirade, had not Churchill written it in fascinatingly strange, elliptic speech, fragmentary, incomplete phrases of telegraphese. You need listen closely to understand…. An astonishing piece of theatre.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) – “Caryl Churchill's new play certainly puts an original spin on the ‘special relationship’. Its conceit is to use a male affair as a metaphor for the tortured submissiveness of Britain to America on foreign policy. I applaud the intentions, even if the play is almost too ingeniously elliptical to ram home its arguments…. What is startling is the sexualisation of politics. The two guys coitally bond over military diplomacy, regime change, rigged elections, and much else. Sam demands a ‘total commitment’ which Jack, who has left his family, cannot give. And Jack's qualms surface over carbon emissions which, it is implied, may end the affair. I love the idea. And Churchill pursues her premise with rigorous logic…. And it is genuinely funny to see a dispute over trade tariffs played out as a lovers' tiff…. The piece is skilfully staged by James Macdonald with the sofa itself rising ever higher as the two lose contact with reality. Ty Burrell's Sam has a wonderful thrusting aggressiveness. Stephen Dillane's Blairite Jack has the right mix of capitulation and lurking conscience. Having dealt in the past with the politics of sex, Churchill puts the sexuality of politics centre stage.”
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) - “Caryl Churchill’s new play is like an explosive capsule, left on the stage to undermine our state of well-being. It also makes you feel helpless, limp with outrage and beset with insignificance. It is just 45 minutes long, but it contains a cosmology of experience in the fractious love affair between two men who run the world…. I will admit that, after seeing the play, I read the script twice before coming to my conclusions…. No other writer can achieve what Churchill now does, which is to convey a universe of feeling in a minimal, stripped back artistry. Though completely dissimilar to Beckett and Pinter, she is surely now in their class in this respect…. James Macdonald’s production is a model of fast-paced clarity and concentration…. Ty Burrell… is faultlessly smooth and dynamic as Sam, while Stephen Dillane’s Jack of all trades catches exactly a sense of confusion overtaken by excitement.”
Benedict Nightingale in the Times (3 stars) – “Who is the angriest British dramatist?... I can’t think of a single one whose work radiates the quiet fury that’s articulately pouring from the 68-year-old Caryl Churchill…. James Macdonald’s production begins gently and deceptively, with Stephen Dillane’s indolent Jack, who is English, tipsily admitting to Ty Burrell’s nervy, driven Sam, who is American, that he’ll love him for ever. And across the Atlantic the two men huddle together on a floating sofa and chat, canoodle, quarrel, make up and generally act as if they’re having a love affair. But we soon realise that this is a very symbolic affair, not to say a pretty Special Relationship…. Occasionally Jack dares to demur, as when US protectionism or global warming enters the sensual equation. But since Sam regards disagreement as treachery, he usually backs down, much as (in Churchill’s view) Britain does when America throws its weight about. It’s clever, gripping stuff, but so ferociously one-sided it had the perverse effect of making me… feel like defending America…. Still, this is how more and more Britons are feeling, and maybe the best way to see Churchill’s play is as a phenomenon: a very topical manifestation of mistrust, anxiety and, yes, anger.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent (3 stars) - "Occasionally, I was reminded less of Churchill and her distinguished oeuvre than of Spitting Image.... Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? is a shallow piece of shrill US-baiting, brilliantly directed by Macdonald as a smouldering droll and deadly allegorical conceit whereby Britain's dependence upon America is presented as a same-sex infatuation.... The trouble is the material itself. It may be wickedly witty in the elliptical fragmentation of the dialogue and the canniness with which it understands the black comedy of mutual dependence. But in pretending that it has found the essential in Britain's relationship with America and in allowing Blair's relationship with Bush to colour the entire proceedings, it is in fact a travesty version of the Special Relationship, which is historically far more nuanced than you would ever deduce from this."
Sheridan Morley in the Daily Express – “Even by Caryl Churchill’s standards, this is a bizarre one. Two men, possibly gay lovers, are alone on stage seated on a sofa which (and this is far and away the most exciting thing about James Macdonald’s otherwise sedentary production) mysteriously rises between scenes, so that by the end of the play, which mercifully lasts barely an hour, it is floating somewhere up by the lighting grid…. This is, all in all, a pacifist piece cataloguing many perceived failings in the Anglo-American alliance over the years. It is also about the sheer ruthlessness of major nations when terrorising minor ones, the precise way in which politicians lie, and that truth becomes the first casualty of war. The trouble is that in longer and better and more detailed plays this territory has already been better covered, and a fractured prose poem doesn’t altogether do it justice…. I get the uneasy feeling that if a playwright less controversial or distinguished than Churchill had submitted this script to the Court, he or she would have been told that it still needs a considerable amount of work to get it off the page and onto the stage.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph –
"Does any kind of quality control now exist at the Royal Court? Artistic director Ian Rickson seems happy to put on any old tat he's offered, especially if it has a famous name attached. These days, all the exciting new work seems to be taking place elsewhere, and an institution that was for so long a major force in British theatre has dwindled into paltry insignificance. And so, to judge by this dross, has Caryl Churchill's once prodigious talent.... It's true that she is a dramatist who hardly ever moves an audience, but in the past she has almost always proved capable of startling theatregoers and making them think. Not here, however. Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? is nothing more than a piece of knee-jerk anti-Americanism.... It is sad to see the talents of Stephen Dillane, who plays Jack like a particularly creepy version of our own PM, and the American actor Ty Burrell as the butch president, wasted on this tosh, even sadder to hear the enthusiastic response at the end. It was the smug sound of an audience applauding its own prejudices. Frankly, shows don't come much worse than this."
- by Caroline Ansdell