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That Face
Royal Court, London

Andrew Haydon
posted 10 May 2007

An early indicator of what we might be able to expect from Dominic Cooke’s new regime as artistic director of the Royal Court can be found downstairs in the theatre’s stylish concrete basement bar. Here, nestling comfortably on the shelves that until recently housed the theatre’s now relocated bookshop, are organic teas and wine, fine dried pasta and lemons.

It is unclear whether these are for sale, a knowing nod to Cooke’s much discussed promise that the theatre was going to start doing more plays for the middle classes, or simply a scene-setting installation for the Court’s new Upstairs production of 20-year-old Polly Stenham’s first play That Face, concerning the miserable lives of an upper-middle-class family.

It says something about the state of British theatre, or society, that it is deemed a paradigm shift when one of its leading new writing venues mentions that it might stage a couple of plays with middle class characters. Of course, Cooke was being cheeky; the Court has no more solidly done plays about junkie-bum-rape any more than it now intends to produce nothing but wall-to-wall Rattigan. But it was dangerously close to becoming the perception, and Cooke was right to challenge it.

That Face opens with a compelling portrayal of hierarchical bullying at a girls’ boarding school, and later offers an unforgettable display of the breathtaking callousness of the older participants, and the damage it can inflict. The play also hints that this is a misery handed down from generation to generation. However, this is incidental. At the centre of That Face is the troubled relationship between likeable artistic high-school drop-out Henry (Matt Smith) and his alcoholic mother, Martha (Lindsay Duncan). If you ever wanted to know what it might have been like if George and his wife hadn’t been lying about being able to have children in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, here it is.

Stenham’s Martha is every bit as fascinating, sexual, and violent a creature as Albee’s and Lindsay Duncan is excellent in the role. As an actress so closely associated with playing cold, ice-maidenly beauties it is shocking to see her collapsed across her bed, half falling out of her nightie, braying drunkenly at her towel-clad son, suffused with a near incestuous desire. It is the sort of performance that Oliviers are made of. The rest of the cast look under-powered by comparison. Matt Smith comes closest to matching Duncan’s wine-soaked rage as Henry is stretched to breaking point by the demands of caring for this increasingly mad mummy while attempting to fend off his father’s attempt to have her committed.

While a number of critics have focused on the subject of the play being perhaps closer to the heart of Conservative England than much seen at the Royal Court, fewer have commented on the conservatism of the play’s basic structure - perhaps thrown by the directorial flourishes which see it played in-the-round with an ever present central double bed dominating the stage, and vanquishing the non-bedroom scenes to far-flung corners of the stage. At times the design is something of an imposition. It confuses locations - which are quite specific in the text - and has the effect of marginalising scenes outwith the main bedroom. It is also an almost perversely modern staging for a play structured with a slow build toward a final explosion more akin to Albee or Arthur Miller than anything the British stage has thrown up in the past 25 years. It is a structure which doesn’t quite work - the stakes seem to raise too high too fast so that the final scene appears almost impossibly overwrought - and yet is far more satisfying, giving more to think about, than any number of more ‘modern’ dramas seen in the Upstairs space.

This is still very much a young person’s play, with rage in abundance. While the young characters here are, by turns, callow, vicious, naïve, unthinking and loving, the adults are near-monsters. Stenham is already too subtle a dramatist to present merely cartoons, but while both parents are roundly excoriated for their behaviour and exposed as pitiful examples of humanity, the young characters are allowed an almost heroic vulnerability and integrity which excuses their multiple failings. This is a fascinating debut, and while not a perfect play, it feels more like it is striving for greatness than many. I could be wrong, but on the evidence presented here, Polly Stenham may well turn out to be one of the most exciting old-school playwrights that the Royal Court has produced in decades.

Till 19 May 2007


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