‘For me,’ Sam Shepard once wrote to Richard Schechner, ‘the reason a play is written is because a writer receives a vision which can’t be translated in any other way but a play. It’s not a novel or a poem or a short story or a movie but a play.’ Mike Leigh’s latest narrative speaks volumes about the world. It is psychologically acute, typically meticulous and beautifully expressed, but it is not a play. Oddly, I suspect it might be a painting.
For Leigh has attempted something bordering on impossibility, breaking two of the foremost rules of dramatic narrative without shattering the form. Leigh’s central characters are both fervently resistant to change and completely rooted to the past, always using the present to hark backwards to the way things once were. As a result, with Grief’s episodic structure showing moments in an unchanging routine, nothing happens twice every five minutes.
Yet, it’s not that which makes Grief a slog to sit through, but Leigh’s incessant way of signposting such symptoms. Every topic discussed, every item of clothing worn, every song sung and every drink drunk is noted as either being passé or fashionable. His method of communication involves boring holes in our skulls with the unstoppable insistence of a woodpecker. Once you’ve got the point, all that’s left is the headache.
Hard to sit through, then, but harder still to shake off. Lesley Manville’s Dorothy, widowed by the Second World War, and her brother Edwin (Sam Kelly) have been left behind by a world that keeps on turning. Their suburban household has been blanched of colour like a faded photograph. Outmoded etiquette remains intact and Dorothy is mortified to be caught in an apron. Both speak in hushed tones, as if nervous of making an impression of the world, and, when they harmonise old Cole Porter songs together, they draw the curtains and close the door. Routine rules and, sure enough, sags in the sofa cushions testify to their permanent passivity. The effect is to frustrate, and eventually frazzle, Dorothy’s teenage daughter Victoria (Ruby Bentall), who fades from rebel to recluse over the course of 1957/8.
All this is, of course, mightily insightful. It marks the generational divide across seismic historical changes: one is unable to forget, the other unable to remember. Dorothy’s paralysis, so delicately played by Manville, is quietly, but potently, heartbreaking. As colourful guests pass through, always rushing, always jabbering, Manville recedes into background silence, totally incomprehending. She looks down at a fashionably short hemline as if it were a complex quadratic equation.
Worse still is Kelly’s Edwin, a man with neither ambition nor passion, whose forty-five years at an insurance firm are marked by a silver salver engraved with a misspelt name. There are lovely cameos – characteristic suburban grotesques (Leigh-viathons?) – from David Horovitch as a relentless jovial doctor and from Marion Bailey and Wendy Nottingham as two garish gossips.
As drama it may be stillborn, but the ideas behind Grief, so finely expressed, are gently horrifying. It is a slow-motion car crash that you can’t tear yourself away from, yet I maintain that, with careful consideration, it could have been distilled into a single image without the slightest loss.