Monday 28 February 2011

A house in the north

Our Private Life, Royal Court, London

Carlos is a bipolar compulsive fantasist. He knows this and his mother, father and older brother Sergio know this, too, and since we also are told this, it’s only mildly troubling that he’s having recurring nightmares about his father sexually abusing him as a child. It might, after all, simply be a suggestion sprung from the terrible accusations that a former worker in his father’s farm is spreading in their little village and threatening to bring to court: that his father abused her young son Joaquìn. In the days surrounding the origination of the rumour, the family struggles and shouts, revealing the deep divisions at its heart and its real and imaginary secrets, twisting our expectations and guesses at the truth.

Pedro Miguel Rozo’s play Our Private Life takes a set of heavily charged themes (pedophilia, incest, neglect) and combines them with state-of-the-nation signposts about the author’s country of origins, Colombia, which is also where the play was first produced. Carlos’ brother, Sergio, is going to be the manager of a soon-to-be-built shopping centre: not any shopping centre, but the largest in the area, ‘where people will go to take photos of each other riding on escalators for the first time in their lives and buying everything they need to make them feel less like the peasants they are’. Their mother, extremely grateful to Sergio for having bought them a DVD player, gets all her reality bearings from what she sees happening in films and TV dramas, which she quotes constantly. The psychiatrist who’s helping Carlos dreams only of a gigantic SUV,  and when the filth behind the normality starts bubbling to the surface, Sergio (who is played energetically and viscerally by Eugene O’Hare, grounded stage presence in sweaty cheap shirts) explains to Carlos why he refuses involvement in the truth: because his future, the future of the son he’s expecting, is trauma-free, a future with ‘a house in the north’ and ‘brand new cars’ and ‘good genes, a good reputation, a safe country, a fair country, one that works’ - this speech being arguably the highest point of the evening.

But while the play was first staged in Colombia, it was actually developed during Rozo’s 2009 Royal Court International Residency in London, so you could almost say that it was written with this theatre and this space in mind. And now that it arrives here in Simon Scardfield’s translation and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and possibly because it’s being produced in the very same rooms, one perceives a certain anxiety of influence, which pulls it in different and opposing directions.

On the one hand, we have the dark and violent and repellent themes mixed with a surreal, disquieting undercurrent (the characters think out loud, facing the audience, but as it’s a dysfunctional application of classical theatre, the other characters can hear them, too: they are literally thinking out loud, a habit they consider a vestige of their peasant origins), in-yer-face theatre done with dark lighting design and dark black gauze hiding the least digestible scenes from the audience, specifically reminiscent of parts of Anthony Nielson’s terrifying and divisive 2008 Relocated. On the other hand, we have the family drama with the quirky, psychologically-scarred kids and their tragically inadequate (and dramatically exhausted) Christmas dinner, à la Polly Stenham. Not that these two strands could not possibly live together happily, but in Rozo’s work, they seem to battle each other out and ultimately end up reciprocally weakened: there is a banal family drama that keeps tugging at the sleeve of a more daring play, stops it from going all the way it could.

This, combined with resolutions and sweeping comments on anything from religion to sexual orientation aiming only for shock-and-awe, gives the impression the text could have done with both a firmer hand and some more fine-tuning. (That also goes for some of the acting: Anthony O’Donnell forgets his line and requests suggestion in a rather crucial scene, worth noting if only because ironically enough, this happens in the same week in which bloggers debate the appropriateness of watching and reviewing plays.)


Till 12 March 2011


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The Stage
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National Theatre
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Royal Shakespeare Company
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