Review: The Treatment (Almeida Theatre)

Martin Crimp’s superbly dark play is revived by Lyndsey Turner

Martin Crimp’s play The Treatment was written in 1993, but watching it in 2017 its depiction of a civilisation turned sour, where people’s lives are commodities to be distorted in the interests of entertainment and art, seems uncannily prescient.

Set in New York, a series of dislocating and dislocated scenes centre on Anne, a vulnerable, hesitant woman who has answered an advertisement to tell producers Jennifer and Andrew her life story. As she quietly describes how her husband tied her up, putting gaffer tape across her mouth to silence her, they immediately begin to turn the events she describes into a treatment – a story that will sell, that will fulfil their expectations of what her life is.

The process accelerates as more and more people are brought in, beginning with Clifford, a washed-up playwright who sells his possessions on the streets, and who has written his own half-autobiographical fantasy of a man who is validated by an act of voyeurism. Then there’s John, an actor, with money and clout. And Nicky, the ambitious receptionist with dreams of stardom who insists – in front of her – "This is not my idea of Anne." Andrew sanctimoniously sums up the process: "Once you come to us with your story, your story is also ours," – yet the irony is that the truth is far more complex than anyone is prepared to believe.

The scenes are both sharply funny and profoundly disturbing. It is unsettling to watch a play that asks such difficult questions about the transformative power of art. "I will not pay good money to be told the world is a heap of shit," says the scary husband Simon, explaining why he does not go to the theatre.

In Lyndsey Turner’s tightly controlled production, Crimp’s dazzling darkness is held as coiled as a rattlesnake, ready to bite at key moments. It does – in acts of violence, and in one devastating moment when Anne confesses the truth of her marriage and is entirely ignored by the group building their stories around her.

Giles Cadle’s cool design, a series of self-contained boxes, and Neil Austin’s lighting, emphasise reds and greens, pure opposites of colour that underline the appositions of the text: truth or illusion, goodness or corruption, city or forest, simple or sophisticated, blindness or clear-sight. Christopher Shutt’s sound design, Arthur Pita’s choreography and a vast cast of extras who wander through the action, all add to the sense of a city in constant flux, never silent, but never listening.

The entire cast displays just the right mixture of self-obsession and pain. Indira Varma is compelling as the monstrous Jennifer, who never quite understands anything but never lets it stand in her way; Julian Ovenden as Andrew, who is suddenly felled by a love he has feigned, conveys a kind of predatory confusion and Aisling Loftus catches both Anne’s vulnerability and her mystery. Gary Beadle, Ellora Torchia, Ian Gelder and Ben Onwukwe all lend pitch perfect support.

I missed The Treatment first time around; seeing it here in so good a production, makes it a mystery that it has been so little revived. It shimmers with dark brilliance, and insight. Catch it while you can.

The Treatment runs at the Almeida Theatre until 10 June.