I feel somewhat torn. On one hand I am glad that a company like the RSC is willing to work with someone like Anthony Neilson, to do something a bit daring, a bit experimental, to take a chance on a more collaborative – and initially script-less – way of working. (Brian Logan goes into the details of the creative process on his GU blog).
But then I get to the show itself, the finished product, God In Ruins, which I saw last night at Soho Theatre with my friend Juice, and my enthusiasm wavers. I just didn’t think it was all that good. It didn’t even seem like a brave failure, more a muddle of ideas, many of which I’d seen better executed elsewhere. While Neilson’s previous work, The Wonderful World Of Dissocia managed to be compelling and infuriating in equal measure, this new one was – cardinal sin in Neilson’s book – kind of on the dull side: there was something rather tired and lifeless about the play, beneath all the swearing and shouting.
It starts with a mildly amusing prologue in which Ebenezer Scrooge, now fully redeemed after his encounter with his three ghosts, turns out to be just as insufferable in his new perky and life-loving incarnation as his old bah-humbug self. This did make me chuckle a little, but it was essentially one joke, and a rather over stretched one.
The play then jumps forward to the present and we meet Brian, a divorced, alcoholic reality TV producer. Having been rude to his ex-wife and failed to tip a pizza delivery man, he has his own Scrooge moment when he is visited by the white-suited ghost of dead dad, there to help him reconnect with his estranged daughter. Even at this early point in the evening there’s a seen-it-before feel to the set up: a heartless TV exec forced to confront his mortality, wasn’t that Scrooged? Even his reality shows have a ring of the familiar to them, like Chimp Monastery – Monkey Tennis, anyone?
There’s also an internet porn sequence that reminded me of Closer, even more so when the truth behind it is revealed, and a not–quite-as-funny-as-it-could-have-been interlude where two small boys discuss the fact that Santa is actually dead and it’s their parents that really buy the presents, which features liberal use of the underused put down ‘pooh head.’
This is followed by a bizarrely studenty, post-modern moment when the characters become aware that they are in a theatre and that they are being watched by an audience. A further layer of artifice is then peeled away as a ‘real’ homeless man bursts into the auditorium and interrupts proceedings, claiming to be an ex-soldier, just back, oddly, from Iran. If this was meant to indicate a slightly futuristic setting, it passed me by – I was too busy wondering why Scrooge from the opening sequence had popped up to help Brian on his way; was he a ghost? A drunken hallucination? Did it even matter?
To be fair, there were a handful of good gags, but most of the laughter I could hear was of the uneasy ‘this is supposed to be a funny bit, right?’ type – forced and awkward. As a whole, the production often seemed to be striving incredibly hard to be anarchic, and coming nowhere near. Brian, eventually finds his daughter, in Second Life, but as Juice pointed out to me in the bar afterwards, he was actually desperate to get in touch with her at the start and was only unable to because he was pissed out of his head, so it’s not much of a redemption. Though there’s also a suggestion that Brian’s unhappiness might be down to some latent homosexuality on his part.
I don’t know, I hate to tip a bagful of negative over a work that takes risks, that tries something different, but none of the disparate elements of this show seemed to fit well with one another and, on top of that, there was a sense of over-confidence to the thing – a touch of swagger about it – that I found very off-putting.