Thursday 9 June 2011

Belch and carry on

We Hope You Are Happy (Why Would We Lie?), Riverside Studios, London

Too often the claim that all elements of theatre are equal leaves some more equal than others. In retaliation against the writer’s stranglehold over British theatre, text suffers discrimination and neglect.

So it’s rather brilliant to see a young company, Made in China, placing it at the centre of the devising process. Tim Cowbury’s text, clattered through with parched cynicism by Jessica Latowicki and Chris Bailey, has clearly grown out of the rehearsal room. It combines (seemingly genuine) personal histories, a hallmark of devised work, with riffs on global concerns to skewer the ludicrous self-pity and hollow righteousness of Western consumer culture.

We Hope You Are Happy (Why Would We Lie?) might be shot through with liberal guilt, but if you can see past that, there’s a sharp attack on its complicit and complacent audience. What elevates it above your average exercise in self-flagellation, however, is its outward mask of polite concern. The repeated claims to care for us are revealed as empty self-protectionism. As long as we’re all fine and dandy, the others can go hang. Any costs are irrelevant.

Its hands might be clasped in prayer for our safe passage, but concealed within is a shard of glass ready to slash throats. Like the prologue of Henry IV, Part II, Made in China preach ‘peace, while covert enmity under the smile of safety wounds the world.’

Two friends, a boy and a girl, gather round the coolbox, gorging on beer and ice-lollies, almost to the point of choking. They talk in that wry tone of smartass teenage irony that sees every sentence, like, broken up and, um, rising at the end. As if they’re, you know, afraid to commit or incapable of caring. Any sincerity is pockmarked and punctured.

They talk of disaster. Of Haiti. Of the Blitz. Of 9/11 and 7/7. Of Thailand, drowning. All are totemic; those that have been delivered unto us by the media. They talk of them in superficial tones, wilfully conflating terrorism with natural disasters. She talks of having broken her foot. He ups her with some other minor injury. They chug another Bud, do a little dance, belch and carry on.

By the end, covered in flour and ketchup and resembling the dust-crusted New Yorkers of a decade ago (an effect I first saw in Longwave at the 2002 NSDF), we must concede the category mistake. That is to say, terrorism and natural disasters are incomparable, since only the latter are truly random. For all the attempts to reframe it as indiscriminate, terrorism is motivated and targeted. Its destruction is reactive.

I’m reminded of something I read (though I can’t now find) at the time of Hurricane Katrina: that natural disasters leave no room for feelings. When it takes everything just to survive, there can be no space for happiness. It is, at base, a luxury and – as Latowicki and Bailey chug on, seeking happiness in excessive consumption – indulgence.

Part of the Show Time micro-festival, 3-4 June 2011


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