The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs Spring 2009
Wallace Shawn's 1990 monologue is one of the more annoying evenings in the theatre I've had in a very long time. The playwright's self-satisfied self-indulgence is both theatrically dreary and irritating in ways even the earnest efforts of a talented actress can't overcome.
Shawn imagines a Western middle-class liberal - the role is not gender-specific and has been played by men, but as there's an actress here I'll use feminine pronouns. She is content in her comfortable life, loves music, dance and fine food, and generally considers herself A Good Person.
Then, on whim, she visits a third world country and discovers, to her shock, that poverty, tyranny and injustice exist in the world.
She reads a little bit of Marx and takes pride in figuring out for the first time that some redistribution of the world's wealth might be more just than the way things are.
This leads her into raptures of masochistic liberal guilt and self hatred until she is declaring 'The life I live is irredeemably corrupt. It has no justification.'
Admirable thoughts in every way, and aside from the fact that I'm being told this by an author who lives comfortably in Manhattan when not acting in Hollywood movies, I can sympathise with Shawn's moral position. What is much harder to take is the dramatic character he has created to express it.
The speaker is made to be both unbearably long-winded and tedious and impossibly naive and ignorant, which means that any sympathy you may have with Shawn's ideas is countered by irritation with the vehicle for delivering them.
As the title suggests, the dramatic premise for the monologue is that the speaker, again in an impoverished country, is having a night of feverish insomnia, so that her thoughts ramble through an uncontrolled stream-of-consciousness.
In practice this means that roughly the first half of the 90-minute monologue is meandering and disjointed, never quite finding its focus or subject.
Then, when she finally does zero in on her theme, the speaker loses credibility and sympathy with every passing minute.
Can she really never have thought about these things, even in passing, ever before? Can she be so ignorant of Marx that even the Marx-for-Dummies basics she picks up are that much of a revelation?
And isn't she enjoying herself-flagellation just a bit too much, in the manner of one who knows that she never is going to give her all to the poor and become Mother Teresa?
Shawn originally wrote this piece to be performed, by himself, in people's living rooms, and says in the published text that he would prefer that to theatrical productions. But I find it hard to believe that many people, freed from the formal restraints of a theatre setting, would sit patiently through this self-indulgence.
(Trying to excuse it, a couple of reviewers have guessed that the piece might in fact be a satire on middle-class complacency and what the British call champagne socialists. But there is absolutely no hint in the text of irony or authorial distance from the character.)
With Dominic Cooke directing, Clare Higgins just stands or occasionally sits on a stage carefully set to look like random backstage clutter. She uses all her talent to search for some reality in the character, investing her whenever possible with hints of self-awareness and ironic humour, and certainly playing her mounting self-disgust with passion.
It is an earnest yeoman job in the service of a script that doesn't deserve or reward such dedication.
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