I tend to gravitate towards corners. It is my default setting in most social situations and so it was last night at a performance of the Royal Court’s Family Plays, a double bill of works from Sweden and Ukraine all neatly wrapped up in an one hour and fifteen minute package (complete with bar break).
For the first piece of the evening, the Court’s upstairs space has been painted a bright, sunny yellow and the bench seating arranged around the walls, with a dining table, a comfy sofa and some garden furniture scattered around the room. It’s all very light and airy and Swedish-looking, though my corner perch wasn’t the most sensible – I was watching the actors’ backs for a good chunk of the time.
Anyway, the play. The Good Family, by Joakim Pirinen, is perhaps one of the tensest things I’ve seen on stage in a long while. In it we are presented with family: a husband and wife and their two adolescent children, who are as perky and content as it’s possible to be, enraptured by everything around them, no matter how mundane – and it’s astonishingly unnerving. I felt myself expecting – and nervously waiting for – something awful to happen – for someone to say something vile or for one of the character’s to spectacularly lose it and stab all the others with a salad fork, but this moment doesn’t come. Instead they play dice and sing songs and compliment each other incessantly, saying things like: “The potatoes are extraordinarily well-cooked” and “Your hair is really light and vigorous looking.” At one point, the father goes off to take a phone call, and the tension is almost unbearable, as we wait for him to return with some atrocious news.
This was a fascinating play; one that achieved a number of things. It’s satirical, certainly, but it also made me question why I was reacting in the way that I was; why did this image of familial bliss make me so anxious? What was it about this portrait of intense happiness that I found so difficult to process? Why was I searching so desperately for something dark and rotten at the centre of it?
After the interval we returned to the theatre to find that all the Scandinavian pleasantness had been swept away, literally – the furniture was now stacked at the back of the room, leaving the audience to sit on seat cushions or on the floor. Earlier, as we headed to the bar after the first piece, Andrew Haydon commented that the next piece was probably going to be “Blasted, it’s all going to go Sarah Kane.” And while Natalia Voorzhibit’s The Khomenko Family Chronicles isn’t nearly so extreme, he wasn’t too far off the mark.
In a visual twist that reminded me of The Wonderful World Of Dissocia one wall had been opened out to create a grim little hospital room. On a metal bed, a bald-headed child sits attached to a chemotherapy drip. His parents come to visit, his mother is heavily pregnant, in white leggings and purple spike-heeled boots; his father wears a football shirt and carries a bottle of beer. They bring their son chicken soup and reminisce about how they first met, using references to Chernobyl and September 11 to colour their stories. Chernobyl and its resulting radioactive rain represents a pleasant memory to them - they appear to make no connection between this event and their son's illness.
But what stood out most for me about this second piece was Lewis Lempereur-Palmer’s superb performance as their young son Lyosha; in a dream-like sequence during the play’s closing minutes he is required to speak a lengthy monologue while running around through the seated audience, and he was quite brilliant.
Oh, though a small point, it's still worth noting that the dramatic change of set between plays means that anything left on the seats during the interval will be gathered up and tidied away - as I discovered after leaving my book under my chair.