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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The City
Royal Court Theatre Spring 2008

Martin Crimp's new play has touches of Pinter, touches of Beckett, and the special kind of poetic not-quite-clarity that is his own.

It is not for all tastes, and the playwright's deliberate and seemingly gratuitous mystification might be actively off-putting to many. But those who want a play that will linger in the mind and reverberate with allusive meanings will find much to respond to here.

In the course of a year we follow a thirty-something couple in their fairly uneventful lives. He loses his job and eventually finds another; she may or may not have an affair; a neighbour complains about their noisy children.

The banality of the events is in sharp contrast to the violence they are aware of in the world around them. The wife meets a man who was imprisoned and tortured, the neighbour's soldier husband relays tales of wartime atrocities, even their daughter imagines harming her little brother.

And the ordinary events and conversations are also charged with a disturbing and inexplicable air of tension, as if a subtext of darker emotions was barely being kept under control.

It is that tense atmosphere that may remind you of classic Pinter, though his plays eventually let you see what social or sexual realities underlie and drive the surface interactions.

Crimp withholds any such insights, and it may be only later that the neighbour's account of how people barely clinging to life fight the hardest echoes in your mind and combines with the hint, very late in the play, that some of what we have been told - and perhaps even some of what we have seen - was not real or true.

The image of characters grasping desperately at a reality that keeps slipping from their fingers, thus charging the most mundane conversations with a fearful intensity, does hint at Beckett or even Ionesco, and reminds us that one of Martin Crimp's most recent projects was a translation of Ionesco's Rhinoceros.

It does remain an intellectual concept more than an emotional one, however, and the play in Katie Mitchell's production is a cold and distancing experience.

Mitchell, who last year filtered Crimp's Attempts On Her Life through a complex and even gimmicky directorial vision for the National Theatre, has here chosen to make the audience's experience stark and minimalist.

A bare white stage with just a few props, performances built on suppressed bubbling-under-the-surface energy, and even a few brief sequences in slow motion all seem designed to keep us out, rather than draw us into the play or characters.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan have the difficult task of playing characters who are intensely feeling things we are not permitted to discover and, within the limits of the production's coldness, are remarkably successful. Amanda Hale fares less well as the neighbour, whose inexplicable passions just make her come across as a monster raving loony.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The City - 2008