Friday 8 October 2010

Threatening repetition

The Country, Arcola Theatre, London

I wish they handed out texts at The Arcola. Watching a production of Martin Crimp’s The Country provokes an urgent desire to scamper back and study the script. Crimp is a highly esteemed adaptor and translator for the stage and there is a respect for language in The Country, an awareness of the power each individual word can wield, that is to be greatly admired. Crimp is brilliant at using repetition to explore the mutating power of language; at using it to create both humour and tension; to expand or resolve verbal ambiguities. He is also exquisite at crafting clever plots, with tightly enmeshed plot-holes, that are exposed or covered up at will. But is this enough? And does The Country, which leaves one gleefully spinning in confusion, leave its audience asking the right type of questions?

Crimp has picked a perfect blank canvas on which to work his magic. Husband and wife, Richard and Corinne, have moved to the country to start again and escape the city. It doesn’t really matter where they are, since what they effectively occupy is a negative space: a landscape full of sights and sounds, which can only be classified as ‘non-city’. It is a particularly non-intrusive backdrop, containing characters that are bored to tears. It is a context in which little else is left – except words. 

We open on a sparse Arcola stage, the floor space spilling into the audience, barren trees scattered around the periphery. In the middle of the emptiness sits Corrine, frantically cutting pictures from magazines. When her husband finally enters – and we and Corinne have both been waiting for something to disrupt her manic distraction – the two carry out an exceptionally economical conversation, composed largely of gaps and repetitions. They rotate in tiny circles, honing in very slowly but exactly to some sort of truth, that both seem to be avoiding.

As the staccato dialogue stutters forward, one begins to long for something to snap. The repetition Crimp uses in his dialogue serves on a number of levels. Firstly, it echoes the (seemingly) mindless circularity of country life routine; the fixation on tiny matters, because little else is going. But, more important than this, the repetition reflects the shared or individual secrets these characters possess. Every repeated word suggests a hidden, cumulative meaning; as Corinne continually labours over the word ‘job’, we begin to wonder why she is so suspicious of this term; as she questions Richard about the ‘person’ he has picked up on the side of the road, we wonder why she is so reluctant to name a gender; as she nags about the bag Richard has supposedly left on the track, we grow suspicious of what she expects to find.

Gradually, these repetitions are resolved. Suddenly, Corrinne (played by a perfectly cast, crackly voiced and stoney eyed, Angela Root) breaks the clinical rhythm of the precisely paced opening scene: ‘I can’t help thinking. What if it had been a man?’ And in one sentence, Crimp releases his entire play. This then is the basis for the rest of the prowling dialogue, which stalks around this question of the other girl, picking at answers but never quite going in for the kill.

The actors understand the precision required of them and carve out a styllised but nicely motoring rhythm for each scene. It is a bit like watching a slow motion version of verbal ping pong and they all seem to enjoy the exercise. Everything is fairly light initially and Crimp’s sublime linguistic patterns are used mostly to generate humour. However, when the rescued girl wakes up and enters the fold, the lightness evaporates and darkness closes in; ‘It was so clear and light, that you could see the dark coming.’

Naomi Watts, playing the not-so-helpless maiden Rebecca, injects a keen streak of unpredictability into proceedings. It is coolly intriguing to watch Corinne and Richard (Simon Thorp) beat each other down with words, but the precise delivery also means it is sometimes easy to disengage. One grows used to the actors’ technique – an early stress on a word inevitably leads to its repetition a few sentences on – and, as awkward as the atmosphere might be, it becomes familiar in its awkwardness. Watts’ Rebecca is reading from a different script from this stultified husband and wife (‘Tell me what it is you think we can’t say.’) and the dialogue trembles, as if anticipating Rebecca’s interference.

The language becomes more versatile and more dangerous with Rebecca’s presence. Repetition becomes a tool with which to threaten, rather than amuse. At one point, Corinne and Richard discuss whether or not she can have a shower – for a very long time. Round and round they circle (‘What kind of noise does the shower make? A shower noise.’), until Richard’s unconscious repetition of this word ‘shower’ is finally revealed: to reach the shower, Corrine would have to pass through the children’s bedroom. One gets the feeling that each word, each action, has the potential to blow Richard’s life apart.

But when Rebecca leaves – exactly how and in what state, is impossible to say – things freeze over and the script locks up again. The electric anticipation fades and the drama stops tingling. Everything gets a little too clinical and the word play even starts to feel a touch formulaic. In the final scene, all the leitmotifs – the taste of the water, certain high-sounding words (which characters use to hide behind, but find themselves ultimately exposed by in Crimp’s clever script), verbal tics – crop up together and it starts to feel overdone.

There is an expansive and emotional feel to the scenes with the live wire, Rebecca, that is missing in the exchanges between husband and wife. In fact, even the scene changes, beautifully orchestrated by director Amelia Nicholson and lighting designer Richard Williamson, feel invested with a deeper and longer lasting meaning. In between the scenes, a stray light roams the stage, opening up the space and highlighting the lonely, scattered tree trunks. These scene changes say a lot about the isolation of this husband and wife and carry a strange, emotional weight. They open out what is otherwise an ever so slightly closed play, which might pose an awful lot of clever questions about its plot, but never quite moves beyond the (admittedly sparkling) confines of its script. 

Till 23 October 2010


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