Comedians (1975), by Trevor Griffiths
“Every joke was a little pellet, a … final solution.
We’re the only animal that laughs”
Griffith’s play has been famously described as an experience where ‘you’re invited to laugh, and then get punished for it’. A satirical jibe at the sexist, racist, homophobic stand-ups of the 1970s, such as Bernard Manning, Griffiths’ play is a blistering inspection of British standards and the honesty, deceit, hatred, love and hypocrisy of humour.
Set in real-time, a group of night class stand-up students congregate ahead of a local showcase which may or may not be the making of their comedic careers. Teacher and ex-comedian, Eddie Waters encourages the men to challenge themselves and their audience, to find the philosophical humour in distasteful truth. However, the man they need to impress, London comedy big-wig, Mr Challenor, has other ideas, wanting them to play to the lowest possible denominator and ‘give the people what they want’, so to speak.
The second act takes the form of the comedy showcase, the audience becoming stand-ins for the fatigued bingo-playing observers within the play. Upon this stage some of the men cave, tossing aside their well-honed routines for non-sequential strings of off-colour gags for quick and cheap laughs. Others stick to their guns, namely Gethin Price (a role which landed Jonathan Pryce his big break), a brittle, fanatical and occasionally unhinged young man, whose ultra-modern music-hall routine attacks mundane absurdities of social rank. Even just reading them, the stand-up routines - and more importantly the tonal juxtaposition - is a gut punch of the highest theatrical standard. The third, final, act sees the fallout.
Griffiths explores the human psyche in a deft, witty and empathetic manner. We are forced to question what we find funny and the reasons for it. The revelation that Waters gave up performing following a visit to a concentration camp where he realised that ‘there were no jokes left’, places the evening’s earlier enigmatic and occasionally awkward interactions into stark perspective. What is comedy for? How does comedy adapt within an ever changing society? These are questions that Sean O’Connor’s revised production of Osbourne’s The Entertainer was striving to explore earlier this year, yet failed to fully realise. For a play over forty years old, Comedians is still as potent as ever, managing to entertain and philosophise in concurrent measure. A modern great.
Published by Faber
The Skriker (1994), by Caryl Churchill
“I am an ancient fairy, I am hundreds of years old…
long before England was an idea”
There’s an element of Churchill’s typically original play which is very much rooted in the real world: it’s about two young women, two sides of the same coin, and their friendship and hardships. One of the them is pregnant, the other has recently killed her own baby. This is very much given a dystopian skew by the brilliant invention of the Skriker (played initially by Kathryn Hunter at the National and more recently by Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange). She/he is a shapeshifter capable of causing mayhem and distrust, taking Lily and Josie into her underworld. Described as ancient and damaged, she can go from being an old woman in a dowdy cardigan, then a grandiose fairy queen, to a man and a child. She asks impossible questions, about how TVs work, how do you fly, how does sleep work.
But her language is the most fascinating. Her monologues are Beckett crossed with nursery rhymes. She speaks in half rhymes and eye rhymes, fusing together phrases like in ‘Out of her mind how you go’. She has a playfulness that reminded me of John Cooper Clarke’s poetry. This is performed on a backdrop made up of an ensemble including RawHeadandBloodyBones, Man with Cloth and Bucket, and Woman with Kelpie. It’s a text bursting with potential for the uber-theatrical and continuous reinvention.
Published by Nick Hern Books
Hurt Village (2012), by Katori Hall
“God only take care of fools and babies,
The rest of us gotta get along by our damn selves”
Hip-hop and crunk beats resound through Katori Hall’s snapshot of a multi-generational community’s experiences of displacement and isolation, featuring pertinent observations on post-9/11 national and racial identity. Hurt Village centres on thirteen-year-old bright spark, Cookie, and her friends and family that inhabit the titular area of Memphis, an infamous pit of drugs, poverty and crime. Cookie, her mother, Crank, and great grandmother, Big Mama, are being evicted from their soon-to-be-demolished unit in the Hurt Village project upon the promise that they’ll be relocated to a more affluent area. Faces from the past, and an ongoing drug war complicate matters, as the characters rise and fall within a country that is desperate to disown them.
Hall explores topics such as gang violence, illiteracy, prostitution, mental illness and addiction, all of which feed off each other in the Hurt Village, perpetuating a vicious circle of hardship. As one character points out ‘[the police] only come for the dead. They don’t come for the livin’. They don’t care about them folk’. The injustices served up by various administrative and governing bodies seem designed to cement these characters’ fortunes, to ‘ring-fence’ them, to put it crudely. One of the most hard-hitting scenes involves Big Mama pleading on her hands and knees to an uninterested clerk – she’s been told that her work as a cleaner earns her too much (a mere $300 a year too much) for her and her family to qualify for the rehousing benefits scheme.
It may seem like Hall’s created a prime piece of poverty porn, but the characters are so human in their depth that, even while taking a strong political stance, Hurt Village remains an ensemble character-driven play. From Skillet, a sweet, stuttering, scarred but underestimated dealer, to Cookie’s psychologically ravaged father, Iraq veteran Buggy, to Cookie herself, a precocious and talented youngster that is wise beyond her years, yet completely naïve to other worldly matters – Hall’s characters are richly drawn, empathetic, yet tough and brash enough to counter accusations of petty pity or ‘champagne socialist’ tendencies on the playwright’s (and audience’s) part.
This was the final play I’ve read this year from Sarah Benson’s Methuen Drama New American Plays anthology. The book offers an exciting and broad range of recent, and in some cases lesser-known, plays which draw on the themes that seem to have pervaded 21st Century society in the USA – race, identity, family, trust and capitalism. Of the six plays featured, Hall’s is up there as one of the best, alongside David Adjmi’s Stunning and Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal. It’s a gem of a book, well worth seeking out.
Published by Methuen
Rough for Theatre II (written in French in the late 1950s, English translation 1976), by Samuel Beckett
“Hold on till I find the verb and to hell with all this drivel in the middle”
What’s there to make of Beckett’s short skit for the stage? What’s going on remains oblique: two men (A & B) are in a room sorting through old papers by lamplight. A third (C) is stood at the back looking out over a void, his back to the audience. The papers are old testaments of this faceless, speechless man, and the duo have been tasked with sorting through his affairs, possibly having his fate in their hands.
There is occasionally a comic stichomythia to their dialogue as they spar off each other, and try to work their temperamental lamps. It’s an elusive relationship between the two, not as clearly defined as the tragic reliance of the duo in Rough for Theatre I. But more interestingly is the peculiar sense of Englishness that runs through it, including references to Marks & Spencer’s and Wootton Bassett which add a twee sense of the comic. And if this has given you a hunger to see it (although why would it?), it’s playing as part of a double bill with Endgame starring Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming at the Old Vic next year.
Published by Faber