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  The Pain and the Itch
Royal Court, London

Andrew Haydon
posted 27 June 2007

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.

The main 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.

For the most part, the action of the play is simply bickering - initially between the two brothers, and gradually spreading out to parent-child and partner-partner fights until the whole evening becomes a simmering cauldron of irritability. It is during the course of these fights between well-meaning, Workers’ Party-voting mother, ultra-liberal Clay and his increasingly Republican brother Cash (pun no doubt intended, ho ho) that much of the play’s much-vaunted satire surfaces. Admittedly much of this liberal-baiting is very funny, even if the targets - liberal views on parenting, politically correct attitudes to culture and relativist acceptance of pornography - often feel pretty obvious. Yes, during the course of the play some of the jokes score direct hits on their targets. The scene in which Kelly admits to having been abused as a child -

Kelly: It was straight out of Alice Miller. Neglect alternating with sarcasm.
Carol: (relieved) Ohhh! Oh, I see. Oh, I though… oh, pfffft.
Cash: Oh, God. Not sarcasm.

- 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.
But nothing in the play feels as surprising as it could. Wallace Shawn’s Our Late Night exposed many of the same inane liberal vacuities twenty years ago. Mark Ravenhill’s Some Explicit Polaroids offered a similar character to Kalina reflecting the failure of socialism nearly a decade back. While David Mamet’s 15-year-old Oleanna remains one of the most stringent critiques of political correctness in any art form. While carrying out Cooke’s promise to put a bit of stick about in his predominantly middle class, left-liberal elite audience, the play does not go so far as to discomfort Royal Court patrons by suggesting that the Republicans are preferable to the Democrats.

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.


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