Wednesday 9 February 2011

A blinding light spills out

Vernon God Little, Young Vic, London

A TV reporter prowls around the stage, a square frame held in front of his preening face. A girl, squeezed into tiny shorts and an even tinier top, practically makes love to a telephone chord. A judge sits in her court, encased by sparkling gold chains, and sings out her summons. Scenes snap violently shut, long distances are covered in minutes and seemingly insignificant moments take over the stage. Everything fizzes with energy and humour and blazes with colour – as if hastily drawn comic heroes were manically trying to claw free from their boxes.

Some critics have pronounced these qualities – the pace, the chaotic comedy, the exaggerated characters – as key problems in Rufus Norris’ revival of DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little, (adapted by Tanya Ronder). Yet, far from sapping the play of authenticity or cohesion, this gharish and cartoonish approach pulls the play together and allows us to experience events through Vernon’s eyes. It is no wonder things appear so pronounced and absurd: this is a fifteen-year old boy on the run from the police, with no-one to trust. The organised chaos that unfurls in Ian MacNeil’s economic and fluid set is an accurate reflection of life seen through the kaleidoscopic vision of a persecuted teenager.

Teenage life is warped and dramatic as it is - but Vernon Little (Joseph Drake, vulnerable but vituperative, like a jaded Scooby Doo) has particular reason to see his surroundings in strange and heightened techni-colour. Firstly, he lives in a small Texas town, Martirio, where the arrival of a fridge is big news. Anything minor is going to seem major in this place of narrow streets and even narrower minds. Secondly, perhaps more importantly, Vernon’s best-friend Jesus has just killed himself – but only after shooting 15 of his classmates dead. And now, the spotlight is on Vernon. The fact the characters seem sharp edged, their emotions cruelly blunted, only emphasises Vernon’s isolation. The absurdly tinted set effectively allows us access to Vernon’s skewed perspective. It provides a portal into the first-person narrative: what more can one ask of a staged adaptation of a novel?

Lily James (Taylor); Joseph Drake (Vernon). Photographer: Johan Persson

One gets the impression all the characters have been hastily highlighted – as if Vernon has gone through Tanya’s Ronder’s biting script, amplifying at will. Almost every character enters with accompanying music: the psychiatrist glides on-stage to classical strains, the TV reporter brings his theme tune trailing in behind him and the slow, Texan cops, slope about to lazy, Western chords. It is as though the soundtrack to Vernon’s life has been whacked on an Ipod and set on shuffle.

The actors, given such freedom by director Rufus Norris’ clever approach, invest their roles with abandoned but focused energy. Peter de Jersey, as the sleazy reporter who turns Texas’ finger of blame of Vernon, swaggers around like a serpent, recently gifted legs. Vernon’s mother (played with brave and painful honesty by Claire Burt) swings between a source of comfort and acute embarrassment. The ladies in Vernon’s life, performed with panache and great heart by Lily James, are alternately aggressively attractive or endearingly hopeless. And whenever Johnnie Fiori, as the chicken-bucket-hugging Pam, booms onto the stage, the play gets one notch brighter.

But this isn’t just a festival of expansive characters trapped in an ever-decreasing horizon. It is also the story of America turned ugly and there are important themes glistening beneath this dirty parade. The themes might not be as deeply embedded as in DBC Pierre’s razor-sharp gem of a novel but they sparkle strongly nevertheless. Religion - subtly and then overwhelmingly - is portrayed as an affliction. A pastor jitters about, every so often squealing ‘Praise the Lord’, as if it is Tourette’s and not god that is governing him. Later, in court, the ruling is drowned out by someone wailing ‘Ave Maria’. Religion is something that does not underpin justice – but drowns it out.

The pervasive effect of commercialism also slithers threateningly onstage. When Vernon returns home, saved from the death penalty at the last minute, the back stage-wall opens and a blinding light spills out. It feels like a potential moment of salvation. Instead, this light heralds the arrival of the much longed-for fridge. Commercialisation has consumed these characters and, as they sip on their celebratory cokes, their insides continue to rot, unnoticed and un-nurtured. 


Till 12 March 2011


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National Theatre
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Royal Shakespeare Company
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