Pain and the Itch
Royal Court, London
And so Dominic Cooke’s hugely successful first season as artistic director of the Royal Court comes to a close with his first directing role since taking over the building. His initial statement of intent seemed to hint that The Pain and the Itch would be The Big One, the final push, to which all preceding plays had merely served as an artillery barrage, softening up enemy lines for this final assault on the Liberal Elite.
As it turns out, compared with fierce intensity of My Child, That Face and even Alaska, the UK premiere of American playwright Bruce Norris’s 2005 offering The Pain and the Itch is a rather polite affair. Billed variously as ‘a withering look at phoney liberal values’ and ‘a hilarious social satire about liberal hypocrisy’, in the end, it seems that its satirical impulse is motivated merely by a more pious form of hairshirt liberalism than that espoused by the play’s principal characters.
narrative of the play is framed as a flashback explanation for the benefit
of a Mr Hadid who appears to have a vested interest in the events of
the Thanksgiving meal depicted. Kelly and Clay are a modern couple of
irreproachable liberal intent. Clay stays at home to raise their daughter
Kayla, while Kelly makes good money as a lawyer. Clay has invited his
mother Carol and his seldom-seen brother Cash to share the occasion.
Cash has brought his new, notably young, Eastern European girlfriend
Kalina. (And yes, all these plosive names do get a bit confusing). Clay
is concerned about a nasty genital rash which Kayla has developed, and
about the possibly intrusion of a rodents into their house. There is
also irritation over the discovery that their cleaner appears to have
started stealing their bread.
- is both
funny, and, when countered with Kalina’s blunt admission that
she was raped by soldiers and then left infertile by a back-street abortion,
shockingly effective. Kalina is also used to make points about the failure
of socialism and to offer the only real concerted defence of American
capitalism. That she is essentially a comic book character with little
weight to her only serves to underline how little the play is interested
in satirising liberal values into extinction. Cash, while enjoyably
sardonic, is never seriously posited as an alternative viewpoint. His
Republicanism never reads like a political position that amounts to
any more than a flippant rebuttal of his irritating family.
Cooke’s production feels slightly mis-aimed. While the characterisation throughout is clear and well-drawn, individual moments of conflict do not quite hit their mark. The central denouement of the piece (a kind of revisit to Ibsen’s Ghosts crossed with an episode of Casualty) feels more surreal than shocking; the series of events which lead to the play’s tragic core are too neatly stacked to really convince and the exposition is played with a casualness that doesn’t quite come off. Following the boldness of some of season’s earlier works, ultimately, The Pain and the Itch also seems formally tired. Like a re-tread of, say, Chekhov or Gorky, but lacking the visionary fire which established both as innovators in their time. Yes, it is funny and quite clever, but it really isn’t going to cause any real discomfort or outrage to anyone, no matter how hypocritical their own brand of liberalism is.
Till 21 July 2007.