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Review Round-up: Did Shawn Get Flying Colours?

Acclaimed American actor and playwright Wallace Shawn premiered his new play Grasses of a Thousand Colours at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs this week (18 May 2009, previews from 14 May), as part of the venue's season dedicated to his work (See News, 6 Nov 2008).

Shawn himself stars as a self and sex-obsessed memoirist in a play billed as “an extreme, disturbing, and funny vision of the embattled relationship between man and beast”. The cast also features Emily McDonnell, Miranda Richardson and Jennifer Tilly with direction by Shawn's long time collaborator and My Dinner with Andre co-star, Andre Gregory.

There was no real critical consensus over Grasses of a Thousand Colours. Whereas for some it was “richly textured, original and wickedly amusing”, for others it was “dirty-minded and supremely self-indulgent”. Indeed, the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer admitted he couldn't even look his cat in the eye without blushing after witnessing Shawn's “pervy and frequently bestial fantasies”. So it would seem fair to conclude this is a must for Shawn fans, but a must-not for the easily offended.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “The set, and the outfit, are the same over three hours later, during which time Shawn, as if in a waking dream, recounts his sexual obsessions, mostly with his own genitalia, but also involving three women, his visit to an animal orgy in a castle in the forest, and a white furry cat called Blanche … The narrative progression of the play is less important than the 'writing' in the sense that Shawn’s prose, which itself has a feline, fearless quality, allows him to include his thoughts on food, sex and masturbation, all articulated with a sort of pain and wonder at his own helpless humanity ... The play is odd, strange beyond weird, but uniquely compelling as testimony to a private life expressing a need to go public with horrible honesty. And you won’t be bored for a second.”

    Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (two stars) - “Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colours is both dirty-minded and supremely self-indulgent … The play largely consists of erotic, sometimes fairytale-like monologues, most of them delivered by Shawn who despite having the face of a priapic frog seems to have no trouble at all in getting three beautiful, much younger women into the sack … The show lasts more than three hours, and long before the end I felt sated and sickened by the playwright’s pervy and frequently bestial fantasies, and this 65-year-old man’s positively adolescent obsession with his own penis. When I finally arrived home at midnight, I couldn’t look my own cat in the eye without blushing.”

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “This is a play about sex. Bawdy, funny, provocative and downright weird, it’s the first new work in more than a decade from Wallace Shawn, an underappreciated master among contemporary dramatists … The direction, by Shawn’s longtime collaborator Andre Gregory, is dextrous, and Eugene Lee’s set is intimate and elegantly conceived … Inevitably, elements of the play will affront some theatregoers. There are repeated allusions to bestiality and masturbation, as well as less sustained ones to donkey’s genitals and incest. But Shawn’s writing possesses a remarkable mixture of unabashed intellectualism and visceral appeal, and Grasses Of A Thousand Colours is richly textured, original and wickedly amusing.”

    Benedict Nightingale in The Times (two stars) - “Those who admire the American dramatist’s work, as I do, should be reassured that his new Grasses is highly imaginative, sometimes even poetic. But even the most devoted fan shouldn’t blame me for shunting out some of the old, sad, critical slurs: obscure, self-indulgent, garrulous, enervating … If there’s a theme to a piece that often seems surreal, dreamlike, nightmarish, it’s probably our troubled relationship with each other, our animal selves and the impulses that bubble up from the unconscious … Maybe the play should be subtitled The War of Wally’s Willy. Who knows - or, finally, cares?”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “How to describe Wallace Shawn's extraordinary new play? A dystopian fairytale? A pseudo-pornographic parable? A modern morality play? It is all these and more. But much as I welcome Shawn's attack on scientific arrogance, I find the baroque extravagance of his imagination becomes, after three and a quarter hours, a touch wearing … Fortunately, the play's tendency to self-indulgence is checked by the visual clarity of Andre Gregory's production and by a set of fine performances: from Shawn himself as the cackling memoirist, Miranda Richardson as his sinisterly feline wife, Jennifer Tilly as his murderous mistress and Emily McDonnell as an attentive girlfriend whose visiting card features a picture of her vagina.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet


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