Monday, 5 January 2009


12/12/08, National (Lyttelton)

3hr 30 mins. Chicago’s Steppenwolf Company. Correction, “Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf”(they presumably sing of little else around the camp fire when the harpist is in town). Written by Tracy Letts (a man) about his own Oklahoma background (and how happy he must have been to escape). Comes trailing clouds of glory and Tony awards, and gratifyingly lived up to expectations.

It’s really a very conventional well-made play about a nightmare family reunion. It even has three acts (and two intervals). There’s a big cast, a surprising amount of plot, with a constant drip-feed of revelations, a death, a love-story, a stolid sheriff, a family meal etc etc. There are some really peachy roles and a few very good jokes. It might be a theatrical cliché if it weren’t for the quality of the acting – the benefits of a long-standing ensemble, I imagine. They convincingly created a family, talking over one another as families do (that was very well done, without any essentials in the dialogue getting drowned – each actor presumably modulating their voice so that whichever character’s lines were essential at a given moment actually cut through the background noise). There was a real sense of long-established relationships being picked up where they’d left off last time they’d met (quite some time ago, in some cases). The play made horribly explicit the tensions and confusions in many families.

Good things. The mother, Violet: monstrous, manipulative, utterly destructive, addicted to pills, ruining her three daughters’ self-esteem and love lives and also destroying her alcoholic husband, long ago an award-winning poet. The aunt, Violet’s overweight sister, superficially noisy and jolly, who turns out to be almost as self-absorbed and destructive as her sister. The set, a cross-section through an old-fashioned Plains house, with steeply pitched roof. The grace at dinner, interminable, extemporised, interrupted by someone’s mobile phone. The eldest daughter’s academic husband, intense, earnest, decent, totally selfish (like the rest of’em) (all the men pretty hopeless, actually). Above all Amy Morton as the eldest daughter herself, her husband “porking Pippi Longstocking”, her 14-year old daughter smoking dope and allowing herself to be felt up by the oily fiancé of the middle daughter, eventually falling apart as she is abandoned in her mother’s home by the rest of the family and finds herself taking over her father’s role as the washed-up companion/sparring partner of her mother: a smart woman whose life just upped and walked out on her. D says she was “very three-dimensional”, her dialogue much more naturalistic than most of the rather stylised writing (or just better delivered?).

Less good things. The rather underwritten part of the native American girl hired to look after the house, who is a largely silent observer and occasional participant in events; presumably intended as a symbol of some sort of integrity which the ghastly family have lost (if they ever had it). The bits of the play largely devoted to delivering plot rather than developing character: the audience was admirably quiet and attentive most of the time, except at these moments when a fusillade of coughs rang out and the dramatic energy sagged, often when the sheriff was on stage, poor chap – someone should record the audience one night and analyse the script and performances to work out why that happened and whether it could be fixed. The Lyttelton acoustic (or is that just me?). Melvyn Bragg in the gents during the interval, complaining loudly to no-one in particular that it was the worst National Theatre programme he’d ever seen, with nothing to read in it.

1 comment:

  1. Subsequently several people (well, two) have remarked that during the crucial dinner party scene most of the cast were sat with their backs to the audience. It didn't worry me and I could (I think) still hear what they said; indeed, in my view it merely added to the general verisimilitude. But there's clearly a school of thought that likes to see the whites of the actors' eyes.