Review Round-up: Crimp divides critics with Republic of Happiness
The Royal Court has served up its annual 'alternative' Christmas show, which this year sees Martin Crimp offer a dystopian retelling of a traditional festive family gathering.
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... 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. And I love the acting of Peter Wight and Anna Calder-Marshall as the grandparents, Emma Fielding and Stuart McQuarrie as Mum and Dad, Seline Hizli and the impish, sexy Ellie Kendrick as the teenage girls. The lighting is by Peter Mumford and the music for the knockout company songs by Roald van Oosten.
People have been walking out of In the Republic of Happiness. It can hardly be because they're offended by the savagery of its satire. In his new play Martin Crimp has created variations – naturalistic, theoretical and surreal – on dystopia. Not one of them delivers a real shock of surprise... Dominic Cooke's sleek production has moments of inventive staging: characters warble their woes into mics as if they were singing the blues. Crimp's script is studded with phrases that show his incisive gifts as a writer. Yet the targets are too easy: limited and frequently attacked. Who is going to stand up for more jargon?... Despite the intermittent vehemence of its laments, this is a tepid attack. Still, there is nothing pale about the performances.
Crimp is the antithesis of feel-good, the nabob of angst. Strongly influenced by Pinter and the Theatre of the Absurd (he has translated several of Ionesco’s works), he has spent the past 25 years crafting a succession of plays that leave you feeling worse when you leave the theatre than you did when you went in... In the first of the play’s three scenes we are at a gruesome family Christmas dinner... This is the sort of thing Ayckbourn does brilliantly and Crimp does very badly... In Cooke’s fluent, stylish production the cast perform this tiresome piece with more wit and conviction than it deserves... Watching their valiant efforts I found myself cursing Cooke, a director I usually greatly admire, for assembling a Rolls-Royce cast and then dumping them in this clapped out Austin Allegro of a play.
It is a spiky, difficult and sometimes crude play: it has already infuriated some theatre-goers and prompted walk-outs. But I found this middle-section uncomfortably brilliant, as the cast work through “The Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual” in search of elusive personal happiness and security, breezily making assertions such as “I write the script of my life” and “I’m looking good”. It’s an angry, provocative, political piece that matches form to content: as the chorus of single voices repeat similar mantras, Crimp makes his point that the more people strive for individual self-affirmation, the more they conform to a norm... The play suffers from the fact that there’s an unattractive smugness to attacking smugness. But at its best, it rips the wrapping off contemporary, smart-screen society and asks what exactly is underneath.
The Royal Court has a proud tradition of offering alternative Yuletide fare and this year they have surpassed themselves with Dominic Cooke's razor-sharp production of a work that could be described as the ultimate antidote to mindless festive cheer. Martin Crimp's play has a deceptively traditional opening. We seem to be in Alan Ayckbourn territory as a middle-class family bicker round the Christmas dinner table. But then it's as though Season's Greetings has been hi-jacked by a squad comprised of the absurdist Ionesco, that master of logorrhoeic misanthropy, Thomas Bernhard, and Caryl Churchill at her most radically playful... The self-serving delusion that you can lead an apolitical life, the individualism that's just a type of paranoid narcissistic conformity; the culture of victimhood and therapy-speak – these things are skewered in an overlapping aural mosaic of escalating craziness.
Martin Crimp is an inventive writer, so it is no surprise that what starts out as a domestic drama - a distinctly unhappy Yuletide gathering, disrupted by the arrival of a sour uncle - mutates into a densely patterned vision of a gobby dystopia... Crimp tears into the contemporary obsession with individualism. He’s venomous and occasionally very funny about narcissism, our short memories and the culture of therapy (both the retail and psychiatric varieties)... Less overt is his interest in what might be called downward mobility - a preoccupation with being grubbier than our forebears... None of this makes for an easy two hours. Dominic Cooke’s production features a strong cast, who commit to the material with unflinching conviction: the standouts are Michelle Terry, Paul Ready and Ellie Kendrick.