Stunning by David Adjmi (2009)
‘Don’t let these people decide your life for you, don’t be a victim!’
Adjmi’s modern American tragedy focuses on the life of 16-year-old Lily, a naïve Syrian-American Jew living in Brooklyn, newly married to a man three times her age. Raised in a community of ‘business’ men, young housewives and luxurious lifestyles, Lily is brought up to believe her main purpose is to look ‘stunning’ and make babies. That is until she hires Blanche, a middle-aged African-American PhD graduate turned maid, who introduces her to the liberating world of books, semiotics, classical music and wine-tasting. As Blanche and Lily embark on an illicit affair the tension mounts as Lily’s husband Ike’s shady business venture takes a turn for the worse, and secrets from Blanche’s past return to haunt the family.
It begins as a satirical exploration of consumerist philosophy – Lily, Ike and co. are initially portrayed as vapid fashionistas who think that speaking in Pig Latin is the height of sophistication. Adjmi nevertheless gets to the heart of a community which is not unsympathetic, peppering the text with cultural idioms and flashes of affection, emphasising the importance (and inextricable nature) of family and security for these Brooklynites. So when a stranger (Blanche) intrudes on this world, the frisson of danger and excitement is thrilling. There are shades of Miller’s A View From The Bridge in Adjmi’s treatment of community, family and betrayal, alongside his emphasis on physical strength and presence in the Ike/Blanche stand-off, which is wonderfully offset by the omnipresence of a Ghost that initially only Lily can see. Stunning addresses issues such as race, gender, sexuality, class, wealth and abuse with fluidity and assurance, while also posing questions on the status of ‘belonging’ in a multicultural, yet hierarchical society. All this affords the play a sense of timeless gravitas on a par with the great American Tragedies of the 20th Century.
Published by Methuen Drama
Goats (2017), by Liwaa Yazji, translated by Katharine Halls
“Poor man. He thought he had the truth, but all he had was some other fantasy”
Goats was a product of the Royal Court/British Council New Writing for Theatre Project in Syria and Lebanon. Not only does such a project help to internationalise the Royal Court’s work, opening up opportunities for writers and other creatives from overseas and thus enriching our theatre ecology, but it also lets the audience into stories rarely seen on the British stage. Goats is set in a Syrian village surrounded by war and death in 2016. The boys who have died fighting are celebrated as martyrs, national heroes, who have done their families proud. The leader of the Local Party, Abu Al-Tayyib, puts much work into such nationalist propaganda, ensuring that the lasting image around their deaths is one of honour in order to encourage other boys to enter the war and die for their country. However, one Villager, Abu Firas (meaning father of Firas), takes it upon himself to question his son’s disappearance and death. Why did his son, who had always seemed so anti-war, disappear? Why did he phone his father asking what he should do? And why are the parents not allowed to see inside the coffins? But when the propaganda machine is so efficiently run and far reaching, Abu Firas looks like a lone crazy conspiracy theorist shouting in front of the cameras and ruining the boys’ funerals. But he’s done enough to sow the seed of doubt into the villagers’ minds about what is really happening to their sons. What Yazji achieves so well is to explore the boundary between public thoughts and televised lies, and private truths and silent doubts. And in a play – and indeed a culture – where the older characters are defined by their relationship to the children (Abu for ‘father of’, and Imm meaning ‘mother of’), the importance of family and the awareness of passing the responsibility of one’s country to your children is heightened.
As the truth unfolds, the realities of war and how a community reacts to and experiences them on a daily basis is fascinating. How can the villagers go on sending their children to their deaths, or have their lies gone so far that the truth has become a blurred and unreachable concept for them? It is a fascinating play which, like the best drama, opens our eyes to new worlds and perspectives. I also have to praise Halls for controlling what is a long and at times unwieldy play (apparently the original is longer). In fact, it relies heavily on text. This doesn’t seem to restrict its theatricality or its ambition, but it does make me curious about the creative process and how it was developed. Finally, in a text and original production which includes real goats, I think we have a new contender for best stage direction: ‘The goat butts its head against the wall, and the house shakes’.
Published by Nick Hern Books
Close of Play (1979), by Simon Gray
“…so you see, what is the point, the point of caring for each other and love each other when the end is always and always the same…”
I’ve been reading Daniel Rosenthal’s excellent selection of letters from the National Theatre archives: Dramatic Exchanges. I’m currently on the boys’ club of the Peter Hall years (1973-1988) and it seems that his approach to new writing, at least in the early years of his tenure, was ‘let’s get anyone and anything in that fills the space’. One of the juiciest bits of correspondence is from Gray about Harold Pinter’s production of Close of Play in the Lyttelton. Gray’s play – which sees a Sunday family get-together lay bare their long-held rivalries, tensions and secrets – played in rep with the premiere of Pinter’s Betrayal, both of which featured Michael Gambon. In his letter, Gray blames the NT for the play’s ‘lousy start, with no possibility of advanced bookings, and precious little publicity’. The production was beleaguered by strikes with the opening pushed back several times. However, I believe it was the same for Betrayal but they didn’t hamper that play’s success or legacy.
I read this letter before reading (or even hearing of?) the play. I’m glad it didn’t put me off because I quite enjoyed it. It’s true that it’s standard commercial, middle class and middle of the road fare. But Gray has acutely drawn an interesting family, each with their neuroses and complexes, secrets and problems, desires and shame. On the surface, things might look normal, all muffins and French windows, but the façade is quickly unveiled. Henry (Gambon) is an overworked and successful GP having an affair with one of his patients. Both he and his alcoholic brother are shadowed by their more successful dead brother. Their step mum Daisy (Dame Peggy Ashcroft) can go half a page of speech without ever really saying anything other than tautological fussing over the children. She’s married to their dad Jasper (Sir Michael Redgrave), who mutely has to listen to and therefore become complicit in everyone else’s secrets. He has a couple of outbursts later on but not much acting chops required… The sons’ wives have their own issues, including Margaret who has become a successful author and now realises she wants out of her marriage. I wouldn’t look into the play as a study of real human relationships and mental heath conditions, but as material for drama, it makes for a highly flammable crucible. Gray makes intriguing drama from letting us watch his characters unravel, leading to a weird and theatrical denouement. And like in Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms, there is an inner life to the play in a fascinating series of offstage characters.
There was something I also enjoyed about the experience of reading this book. It’s a thin book (the play text is not much more than 50 pages) and its design is merely made up of the title and writer. I got it out of a library, but the inside stamp is from a campus on an institution which no longer exists. And it was first taken out of said library before the play had its premiere, and seemingly not stamped in the 40 years since.
Published by Methuen
2nd May 1997 (2009), by Jack Thorne
“It’s brilliant. It’s like everything’s new. I’m so excited.”
Ahead of a new New Labour play from Thorne opening at the Royal Court this week, I thought it would be good to read this earlier play of his. A triptych, each section is set in a different bedroom the morning of and night before Labour’s landslide victory in the 1997 General Election. In the first, a veteran Tory MP is expected to lose his seat. In the second, Sarah has followed the wrong guy home from a party. In the third, two 18-year-old Politics students wake up in the same bed together after a night of watching the votes come in.
Most of the enjoyment came from imagining original cast members Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Hugh Skinner play the awkward negotiation of exchanges in the one-night stand scene. But what’s great about Thorne’s writing is his careful exploration of character and always interesting use of stage directions. We (and possibly him) are surprised by what characters might do next. Each scene contains different levels of hope, possibility and disappointment, no more so than in the last scene. The snapshot we see of Will and Jake shows a brief but complete portrayal of coming-of-age. They contemplate their future, both at university and career, their friendship, and their sexuality. It palpably captures a moment of excitement, as naïve or short-lived as that might be, shared around the country by many that morning. Each scene may be microcosmic, but it’s the level of finely-observed detail in each which is really exciting to discover.
Published by Nick Hern Books