Sunday 24 February 2013

No need to shout

If you don't let us dream, we won't let you sleep, Royal Court Theatre, London

I wish the Royal Court would stop shouting at me. It’s starting to royally piss me off. Don’t get me wrong; I still hold my breath every time I go to this theatre. But the number of times I leave feeling a little flat – especially after seeing a play which supposedly SPEAKS TO US ABOUT THE WORLD WE ARE LIVING IN TODAY – is starting to creep up.

If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep (the title of which is WRITTEN ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS) is part of the Court’s New Playwrights Programme. It’s written by Anders Lustgarten, who is a political activist and clearly a very bright and passionate man. Lustgarten has a lot to say about today’s financial situation and the fierce spiral of shite we’re all being dragged into. But the fact remains that this play is shouty, profoundly confused and pretty crude. Has this piece been picked for its voice or its volume?

Set sometime in the ‘near’ future (is there a context I loathe more?), Anders’ play depicts a world in which human behaviour is being commodified by ever resourceful traders. Some clever corporate bods have come up with a new idea: a ‘Unity Bond’ that goes up in value only when the number of addicts and re-offenders go down. It is a surprisingly optimistic enterprise which is rapidly and somewhat predictably reversed. Soon enough, the investors find themselves betting small fortunes not on the resilience but on the demise of the fellow human race.

It’s a bold idea – but one that only wafts hazily throughout this play. For much of the time, we’re shown snapshots of a city that’s gone to the dogs. Racism is running riot. Old nurses are being ignored by the very hospitals to which they dedicated their lives. And the money men are ruling the roost, clucking and cackling on top of their massive wads of cash.

Such over-amped characters and over-stretched scenarios are begging for a light, comic touch. But director Simon Godwin has played things far too straight. The majority of performances are much too earnest and feel thumpingly over the top. Meera Syal is one of the few to tap into the play’s comic potential and her vaguely satirical scenes are the among the few scenes we take seriously.

It isn’t just the tone that’s out of whack but the structure too. This play might just have worked if all the scenes were kept fast, furious and slicingly amusing. But the early shot-gun scenes are loosely threaded together for an extended and fairly excruciating final act, in which all the put-upon characters place the whole economic situation on trial.

Everything becomes grindingly over-explicit, as the ‘austerity’ measures are picked apart by an angry throng. There are a few gems of economic insight in here but it’s really tough to stay engaged. We’ve been dragged in so many different directions; the tone has swung all over the place, the characters have shed their skin countless times and the director feels bizarrely absent. The dialogue, too, is a curious mixture of dry and sentimental, precise and sweeping, and is very hard to stick with. 

It’s all deeply frustrating. Why do so many new writing schemes pick plays that explicitly ‘talk about today’ rather than plays with a resounding, unusual and honest voice? I strongly believe it is how the playwright speaks – and not specifically what he or she speaks about - that reveals the most. It’s the melody and not the lyrics of a script that matter; the rhythm, passion, humour and tremble in the playwright’s voice.

Till 9 March 2013


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