Friday 20 March 2009

Dead in the red

Hallelujah, Theatre503, London

Somewhere, right now, someone is writing an excellent, insightful play on the economic crisis, a play that will tell us everything we can not yet understand about it; a play to which we will look back once the recession is over, to indicate it as the one piece of theatrical work that best represented and revealed the reflections of the crisis on our daily lives, the one you must see if you haven’t lived through it and you want to know what it was all about. Unfortunately, Jane Bodie’s Hallelujah, which opened on March 3 at the Theatre503, just isn’t that play.

Created for Theatre503’s Rapid Write Programme, Hallelujah was written and rehearsed in the space of two months - the point of the project being to allow playwrights an immediate response to topical contemporary events, which in itself sounds like a potentially wonderful idea. Bodie picked up on three recent issues: the fact that we are all suddenly out of money; the fact that Alexandra Burke is singing a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’; the big-snow days. She then put three characters in a closed room and made them talk to each other about these things.

These three are all there for the same man, Frank, who has recently killed himself - because, you guessed it, he had run out of money and was collapsing beneath debt. Even if in the beginning the characters believe they don’t know each other, they (and we) soon find out that they do, if only by name: the young estate agent, Martin (Mark Arends), is Frank’s estranged son; the feisty, outspoken young woman, Eithne (Aoife McMahon), is Frank’s long-time lover; the middle-aged, best-off one is Frank’s first wife (out of three, plus the lover), Brenda (Joanne Howarth). They all have their reasons to love Frank and they all have their reasons to hate him; each one of them thinks he or she knew him better than all the others. But the real question, given that he died in the red, comes down to whether any of them is willing and able to afford to pay the bill for his funeral, for a minimum of £2,600.

This is a slightly morbid starting point from which to tackle the consequences of the economic downturn; moreover, while it is true that these kinds of costs are a rarely discussed or disputed problem for bereaved families, the play does admit that the government has a scheme to help those who cannot afford to bury their relatives. Nonetheless, it could still be a good black-comedy excuse to discuss the recession. Except that it isn’t, given that it soon turns out that Brenda has plenty of funds, and simply does not want to pay for Frank’s funeral for personal reasons. So surely the problem stops having anything to do with the economy? But maybe we can expect more stimulating contributions from the other two characters, who seem to be doing pretty badly in economic terms. At one point, Eithne, who is forced to stay at the parlour because she has no money left for a taxi (nobody suggests public transport) gives one of the many dramatic, heightened tirades of the evening, and wonders, ‘When did it become acceptable to live on other people’s money?’.

An interesting point indeed, especially given the specificity of the 110% mortgages, play-now-pay-later culture to the Anglophone societies - how did it come to be? Why does it exist here and not in other European countries? When did being in debt become a normal, daily condition with no particular anxiety or shame attached to it? But instead of remaining with this issue, the play immediately swerves towards a different subject, as Martin gives his own monologue and tells us how hard it is to be an estate agent who works twelve hours a day; this is already pretty hard to sympathise with for many of us, and that’s before we even find out that Martin lost his job not because he was no longer selling enough houses, but because he was too distraught by the end of a relationship to work. There goes another good occasion to write something relevant.

We don’t get many other opportunities, either, because the play starts turning into some sort of reality show that we could title ‘Revelations, Revelations’: Frank had secretly been visiting Brenda to discuss his problems, thus she was the only one who was aware of them; Eithne started seeing Frank not during the days of Wife Number Three, but during those of Wife Number Two; Eithne also had an abortion; Frank used to sneak out to watch Martin sleep through his bedroom windows (this one very closely bordering on the ridiculous); Brenda went to the hotel where Frank killed himself and took some (ineffective) pills; and so on and so forth. Given that the trio all more or less start off by being angry and resentful towards Frank, we can expect that they will talk themselves into loving him again - which is exactly what happens. Soon enough, the two women are sharing sweet, adorable, clichéd details of their lives with him; his being a cheat and a liar can apparently be entirely forgiven and forgotten through the fond memories of his snoring. Even Martin points out that Frank was always more alive than all of them put together.

As a particularly bad instrumental version of ‘Hallelujah’ starts playing, the drama drags on and on and on, as cheesy and television-friendly as Alexandra Burke’s cover. While the occasional joke or pun make it all more bearable, the liveliness of the beginning is quickly lost to more traditional big-scenes mechanics. Even the initially most entertaining character, messed-up Eithne, is reduced to a predictable figurine: if Goldoni were still alive, the vibrant, passionate, petite young woman who swears a lot and wastes her life waiting for an older man would probably be added to his repertoire of masks.

One cannot reproach Arends, Howarth or MacMahon, who all do a good job with what they are given; apart from an awkward moment of people jumping up and down a sofa to indicate the passing of time, a choice left unclear and unrepeated, the same applies to Gemma Fairlie’s direction. Lorna Ritchie’s set is perhaps the best guessed aspect of the show: a perfect reproduction of all the slightly run-down, nauseatingly pastel-colored waiting rooms of the world, with a sad choice of teas on a trolley and out-of-date magazines - and the clever addition of a great number of air-deodorants in every available socket and on every available surface, to remind us of the nature of the place. But Jane Bodie’s play is a disappointment; not only because it decided to play safe by being a completely traditional work, where the context would have tolerated and welcomed much more daring experimentation, and not only because even as a piece of traditional theatre it refuses to produce memorable or at least real characters, not to mention dialogue. It is a disappointment because it fails to say anything relevant, anything personal, anything at all about the issues it promises to discuss.

It is, in fact, completely disconnected from them, using them merely as pretextual plot devices,  focusing instead on producing real-life drama that looks the way soap-operas tell us real life looks. Hallelujah is not theatre, it’s EastEnders. This progressive exposure of not-even-that-dirty secrets (it is honestly hard to understand why Brenda and Martin would be so shocked, even outraged, by Eithne’s abortion - surely it is none of their business anyway?) suffocates everything else; what we are left with, instead of a play about our serious times, is a play that will be dated and obsolete long before the recession is.


Till 28 March 2009


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