Clichés dressed as insights
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.
Blowing hot and
cold: reunion at Wallace Shawn’s