Clichés dressed as in­sights

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - THE­ATRE JOHN NATHAN


RATHER LIKE writer Robert who, in Wal­lace Shawn’s lat­est play, bears an in­stinc­tive dis­like of ac­tor Dick, I ad­mit to har­bour­ing a sim­i­lar prej­u­dice to­wards Shawn him­self. The New York play­wright is prob­a­bly still best known to many for his 1981 film My Din­ner with An­dre and as the neb­bish hus­band to Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s Man­hat­tan.

It’s a prej­u­dice that formed in 2009 dur­ing the Royal Court’s Wal­lace Shawn sea­son. In The Fever, for in­stance, Shawn tack­les the in­equities of cap­i­tal­ism; in Aunt Dan and Lemon, he im­plies that the lib­eral West has more in com­mon with the Nazis than it likes to think. The am­bi­tion is big enough. But I can never shake the sense of a pseudo in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism hov­er­ing be­hind Shawn’s moral­is­ing.

Here, he plays Dick, a bit­ter has-been who is present at the re­union of the cast and­cre­ative­crewwhoworke­donRobert’s mod­estly un­suc­cess­ful play 10 years pre­vi­ously. They con­vene at an old club called The Talk House and their ram­bling con­ver­sa­tion re­veals that they are liv­ing in an era where those who “threaten us” are rou­tinely killed through a process that in­volves se­lect­ing tar­gets, such as goat herders in Africa who might be har­bour­ing some ill in­tent to­wards our so­ci­ety, and bomb­ing them. Nearly ev­ery­one does a bit of tar­get­ing in their spare time, we learn.

Shawn, it seems, is much ex­er­cised by the use of drones launched by a so­ci­ety in which para­noia over terror at­tacks is rife. In the wake of Paris this would seem a pre­scient ob­ser­va­tion.

But th­ese are surely not hith­erto un­seen in­sights, pre­sented, as Shawn’s fans would have us be­lieve, by a prophetic moral author­ity. They are in fact great big, stonk­ingly ob­vi­ous is­sues that we are de­bat­ing all the time.

Ian Rick­son’s pro­duc­tion has its mo­ments of dark com­edy. But, as usual with Shawn, I leave want­ing to shake the di­rec­tor and say, “I just don’t think he’s that good”, which, rather use­fully, is ex­actly what Robert says about Dick. The ti­tle of Harold Pin­ter’s 1965 clas­sic refers to Teddy who, af­ter years of ab­sence, vis­its his mod­est child­hood home where his fa­ther Max and broth­ers Lenny and Joey still live. But what comes across in Jamie Lloyd’s flashy, 50th-an­niver­sary re­vival of the play is some­what of a rev­e­la­tion. This is not just Teddy’s home­com­ing, it’s his wife Ruth’s too.

She’s played here by the ex­cel­lent Gemma Chan, who beau­ti­fully cap­tures Ruth’s tran­si­tion from prey to preda­tor. Pin­ter, it could be ar­gued, was writ­ing lazily when he wrote Ruth. When we first see her tip-toe­ing into the house with Teddy she’s a ner­vous waif. Then she’s a femme fa­tale of male fan­tasy pro­por­tions, which still leaves one ques­tion unan­swered: why on earth a woman would insert her­self into the lair of men in­tent on ex­ploit­ing her?

But in the mo­ment when she tells her fa­ther-in-law that she is from “round here”, a new penny drops, partly be­cause of Chan’s Oriental looks but also be­cause of the way the ac­tor mod­u­lates her ac­cent from posh English to East End cock­ney. In fact, Lloyd’s en­tire vi­sion could be set in the liv­ing room of the Kray broth­ers, or a fam­ily like them. Ev­ery­thing that Pin­ter in­trigu­ingly im­plies is made ex­plicit here. For in­stance, the fey­ness with which Keith Allen plays Sam, makes sense of why Max’s brother never mar­ried. Ron Cook, as Max, is brimful of mal­ice; John Simm, as Lenny, oozes psy­cho­pathic in­tent, and Gary Kemp, as the re­turn­ing Teddy, su­perbly sheds the ci­vil­ity he adopted since leav­ing the house for a life as an aca­demic, slip­ping with ease back into the thug that he used to be.

Too ob­vi­ous? I’d say not. This is a bold read­ing of ev­ery­thing that Pin­ter sug­gests be­tween the lines.

Trafal­gar Stu­dios


Blow­ing hot and

cold: re­union at Wal­lace Shawn’s

Talk House

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