Thursday, June 28, 2007

Back On Topic

So I headed over to the Royal Court last night to see The Pain and the Itch by Bruce Norris. I’d been looking forward to seeing this for a while, partly because of the Mathew Macfayden factor (I was rather taken with his portrayal of Mr Darcy, preferring his awkward and taciturn take on the role over Colin Firth’s) and partly because it originated with Chicago’s famous Steppenwolf theatre company, whose excellent production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the shows that really opened my eyes to what good theatre can be.

Norris's play concerns a well-heeled couple, Clay and his wife Kelly, who are hosting a holiday dinner for Clay’s plastic-surgeon brother Cash and his East European girlfriend, as well as the brothers’ mother Carole – this despite the fact that the brothers seem to actively dislike one another. There’s also the matter of the avocados: something has been taking bites out of them – rodents, or possible raccoons, are suspected – and worry about their young daughter Kayla, who has developed an itch in a rather private place. All of these events are related to a mysterious Asian man, though his role in the story only becomes clear near the end.

Michael Billington called it an “ingenious satire on the American brand of phoney liberalism,” but I guess he’s using the lesser known definition of the word ingenious that means heavy-handed and repetitive. A lot of the jokes felt rather broadly telegraphed and the twists in the plot equally obvious. Satire should unsettle the audience, it should make you question yourself, but this was just too extreme, every character so irredeemably vile, as to undermine whatever impact it set out to have.

Even Cash's girlfriend Kalina, with her Eurotrash boots, her smoking, and her ability to interact with screechy Kayla as an actual child rather than a pet to be praised and reprimanded, breaks into a shocking rant about gypsies just as she seems to be developing into the human heart of the piece.

I know a lot of this unpleasantness is intentional and I suspect part of the problem is the play hasn’t traveled particularly well, but still I felt a little grubby at the end of it all. Matthew Macfayden was brilliant though, shucking off his Darcy-ness quite spectacularly to play the whiny Clay. Peter Sullivan was also quite wonderful as the narrow-eyed Cash, who seemingly had only two vocal settings: sarcasm and disdain. The rest of the cast were strong too, though Andrea Riseborough’s accent as Kalina did seem to wander from the Baltics to the Balkans and back again throughout the course of the evening.

Having sweltered in stuffy pub theatres last week, this time around I was rather grateful that I took a jumper, as the Court appeared to have set their air-con to ‘winter,’ perhaps to coincide with the play’s Thanksgiving setting.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Your comment on the play's ability to travel well is perhaps the most insightful one I've read yet concerning the London production.

When I saw The Pain And The Itch at Steppenwolf in Chicago two summers ago, it was a hard show to watch, but in the end, I rather liked it.

I confess to being a fan of Bruce Norris' ability to skewer the left along with the right by holding up a giant mirror to his audience. He has the ability to make us rethink our prejudices in ways that take us way beyond our comfort zones.

While not his best work (I much prefer his Purple Heart and his more recent The Unmentionables), The Pain And The Itch certainly makes you think.

Interval Drinks said...

Thanks Steve.

I did actually anjoy this in parts and can see why Norris is admired as a writer, but it just felt too extreme, too unrelenting, to work well as a satire.

I do think that cultural factors play some a part in this though and, of course, a lot of critics loved it.

Anonymous said...

Let's face it. Matthew Macfadyen could be picking daisies on stage and that would suffice!

Anonymous said...

preferably naked picking daisies.

Gemma said...

Amen to that.