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Poor Beck
Soho Theatre, London

Dolan Cummings
posted 18 March 2005

Joanna Laurens' new play, part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's new work season at Soho, sort of takes its plot from Ovid and kind of takes its style from Beckett, and the result veers between an intriguing study of language and relationships and a confusing misadventure.

Laurens is clearly interested in language and in exploring the potential of poetic dialogue. (In this, Poor Beck is very much in keeping with her previous play Five Gold Rings.) Each character has a distinctive way of speaking, exhibiting various degrees of fluency in a post-apocalyptic subterranean world. Cinyras, the blind father, has retained most linguistic sophistication, and is able to reminisce lyrically about the world above, while his libidinous wife Cenchreis is reduced to a childish patois. Their daughter Myrrha boasts that she can speak both languages. Unlike her parents, she is not fallen, but rather born into this world, growing up in it.

Poor Beck, meanwhile, is an outsider, illiterate in a dozen languages. He is the catalyst for the dramatic crisis at the heart of the play, but he is largely unwitting even when able to describe what is happening. In this world, orphaned from the civilisation that spawned it, description too is orphaned from meaning. 'Where I come from, that's OK,' Poor Beck says of incest. But these people are not so pristinely free of civilisation that this can be true, least of all for Cinyras.

All this is interesting stuff, and while the opening of the play is hard work, once the characters are established, their story is engaging, and the language often surprising in its freshness. The perilous future of language is emerging as major theme in new writing, with the first two plays in the current Paines Plough season, The Small Things and Mercury Fur both dealing with dystopias in which language is either dying off or breaking down. Laurens' approach is perhaps more intensely concerned with language itself, more realistic in its unreal forms of expression (in contrast, for example, to the paradoxical lyricism of Philip Ridley's cultural orphans in Mercury Fur).

Unfortunately, Poor Beck tails off at the end, descending into a self-conscious tableau of ruin. I sometimes wish theatre directors would emulate the Dogme school's injunction against the use of guns, except in very specific contexts. There are other bum notes, too. For me, the disappointing brilliant Persil-white of Myrrha's underpants takes something from the play's dramatic climax, but this could conceivably be symbolic. Otherwise, the relentless seriousness of the play's eroticism grates, especially at the end when it threatens to become ridiculous.

To be fair, however, if you can't risk pretentiousness in a new work season, then what's the point? There are some fine ideas here, and Poor Beck is a worthwhile experiment whatever its faults.

Run over.

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