Dominic Cooke has brought his five-year tenure at the Royal Court to a resounding conclusion this year with an exceptional run of plays in both auditoria, and Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness - who'd have thought it? - is the cherry on the cake.
Structurally unlike anything else he has written, it’s funny, sexy, witty and rude, and performed in bright light with some terrific songs. Crimp goes so far as to call it “an entertainment in three parts,” and it rocks along like a dystopian vaudeville conceived in an unlikely alliance of Alan Ayckbourn, Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill.
A family Christmas party is interrupted by Uncle Bob and his wife Madeleine, who hates them all. Granddad spent 40 years in general practice and ten before that in prison. Even an imperfect erection can be useful, he says, defending his interest in pornography.
One of the daughters is pregnant, the other merely spiteful. Granny looks vacant, the others semi-occupied. They chomp and chatter in their paper hats until Madeleine in her zipped silk dress lurches into another surreal dimension and is told by Mum to keep away from her children.
In the middle section, “The Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual,” the lines are not credited to any specific characters (as in Churchill’s Love and Information earlier this year). Miriam Buether’s brilliant design disintegrates into a television studio-like anonymity and the actors litanise contemporary obsessions with surveillance, invasion, rape, anger and self-determination, all with a sort of corporate smirk and come-on.
They have the freedom to write the script of their own lives, to separate their own legs, to endure infertility and to recount a history of abuse. An audience’s innate resistance to this sort of stuff is worn down and finally blown away in the insouciant charm of the performance.
And the stage heaves, supplanted by a pristine white box with views of a placid river and green landscape. Bob and Madeleine (Paul Ready and the glorious Michelle Terry) are at it again, condemned to their republic of happiness, their smiling faces and their banal happy song.
The actors are imprisoned and liberated at once, their strange between-worlds condition a source of joy, intemperateness and above all a care for our diversion. Add it all up, I’m not sure what you get. But as it goes by, it’s the most tremendous fun for 100 minutes, my favourite play of the year.