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  The Theatreguide.London Review


Grasses of A Thousand Colours
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs Spring 2009

Wallace Shawn's play, receiving its world premiere as part of the Royal Court's Shawn season, has moments of beautiful writing in it, along with moments of high comedy. But they are all but buried in heaps of verbiage - the play is three and a quarter hours long - and only the hardiest are likely to find the gems worth the slog.

The opening premise is that a famous scientist, played by Shawn himself, is giving a public reading from his memoirs, but that opening is quickly dropped (and forgotten - the end of the play absolutely contradicts it) in favour of his telling us about some recent events in his life.

The narration - though there are three other members of the cast, at least 70% of the text is his story-telling - has three uncomfortably interconnected strands. At its centre is the account of the narrator's love life, with a wife and two mistresses, told in graphic sexual detail and frequently Rabelaisian high energy and comedy.

Alongside this is a fairy tale adventure of encountering a queen of cats and having a sexual relationship with her, only to have her reappear as an ordinary cat owned in turn by each of the women and playing a role in their romantic lives. And vaguely in the background is talk of an ecological disaster, in part accidentally set off by the scientist, that is killing off humanity.

And what's it all about? My best guess is that it is either a condemnation of these characters for diddling while the world burns, or a celebration of the human capacity to keep on loving and lusting even in the face of annihilation - and I think you'll agree that it would be nice if it were clearer which of those positions the author was taking.

I think that Wallace Shawn's persona as an actor - somewhere between Woody Allen and Elmer Fudd - gets in the way of the piece. He's not an easy character to like, and thus to care much about, and his nerdish quality makes too much of the sexual material play like an old man's waning masturbation fantasies. Given his dominance of the text, a stronger and warmer actor in the role could only have helped.

Acting honours for the evening go to Jennifer Tilly as one of the mistresses. Tilly has played bimbos so frequently that it is easy to forget what a skilled comic actress she is, and her perfect timing, throwaway reactions and constantly surprising and askew line readings provide most of the life and entertainment of the evening.

Given less to work with, Miranda Richardson is ethereal as the tree-hugging and possibly magical wife and Emily McDonnell girlish as the badly-underwritten other girlfriend.

Andre Gregory's direction consists to a great extent of finding uninventive ways for non-speaking actors to fall asleep or otherwise turn off whenever one of the others goes into a lengthy monologue.

The play has two intervals, and on this evening more than a third of the audience took advantage of one or the other to escape. Those who stayed to the end seemed to be applauding their own endurance and that of the performers more than the play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Grasses of a Thousand Colours - Royal Court 2009