Saturday, May 10, 2008
The Unsettling City
There is a bus that takes me almost literally from my front door to the entrance of the Royal Court and there is something about this ease of arrival, this smooth transition – from sofa to stalls – that always puts me in an excellent mood: open, excited.
My most recent trip there was earlier this week to see Martin Crimp’s latest play The City, a strange and twisty thing indeed. The play begins with a scene in which a married couple discuss their respective days. The husband, Christopher, is anxious about the impending restructuring of the company for which he works, while the wife, Clair, describes an unusual encounter with a man at Waterloo Station, a writer with a young daughter, which resulted in her being given a diary as a present. A strong sense of tension underlines this entire exchange, as with every subsequent scene.
In the following scene, a woman, Jenny, a nurse you assume from the uniform, arrives at the couple’s house to complain about the noise their children make when playing. This has been preventing her from sleeping following her night shifts. She then tells them a lengthy story about her husband who is overseas, working as a doctor in a war in an unnamed country. Later a young girl appears – the couple’s daughter, you presume – also clad in a nurse’s uniform and the feeling of discomfort that has already been building grows even stronger. There is something about the casual exchange of smutty limericks between the Cumberbatch’s character and this child that makes you fear for this small, vulnerable person surrounded by all this unspoken aggression and anxiety.
This ninety minute play is a taut and finely crafted piece of writing where every detail, no matter how inconsequential it initially appears, carries weight. Katie Mitchell’s direction accentuates these qualities. Every nuance of speech and movement feels as if it has been carefully thought about. Disconnection is the dominant theme. Crimp’s characters seem to be permanently on the cusp of a volatile outburst and each carefully constructed scene is, as I’ve said, an exercise in tension.
An air of unreality is also apparent. The stories that the characters tell frequently fail to ring true: everything feels slightly askew. The reasons for this only become apparent at the end, when Crimp overturns what has gone before with what feels less like a revelation than a new layer seems the perfect conclusion, cementing the underlying sense of despair. The city of the title refers not only to a physical place but a place of the imagination. Clair works as a translator, dealing only with the words of others, her own attempts at creativity are lifeless, fractured – disconnected, her internal world barren
As Christopher and Clair, Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan give excellent performances, ditto Amanda Hale as their timid, quivering neighbour. Cumberbatch in particular is proficient at giving an edge of menace to even seemingly mundane statements and all three of them speak with an intensity, a clarity that is oddly unnerving. This, as with everything else we are given, seems designed to unsettle, an effect enhanced by Vicki Mortimer’s stark, very white set and the babble of white noise that accompanies the scene changes.
The world Crimp presents us with, is anonymous yet also familiar - also very sinister. Not a place to linger long: unspecified unpleasantness lurks beneath the surface, constantly threatening to bubble up. Some parts didn’t quite click, when Cumberbatch came out in a supermarket butchers garb, it was a predictable joke, but I enjoyed the games that were being played, the knottiness of it.
On the way home, my bus took longer than unsual, going on an unexplained diversion and meandering all round the house. I didn’t realise why until I read about the shooting in Markham Square the next day, somehow this seemed disturbingly apt.