The Theatreguide.London Review
Republic of Happiness
Royal Court Theatre Winter 2012-2013
To its credit, Martin Crimp's new play addresses some Big Subjects. To its detriment, it addresses so many Big Subjects, and in such a scattershot way, that it eventually breaks down into an almost random list of the playwright's dislikes and an almost empty display of his verbal virtuosity.
We begin at a Christmas dinner where everyone dislikes at least one other person at the table, but not beyond the bounds of ordinary family dynamics. Suddenly the family black sheep (Why he's an outcast is never explained) appears, followed later by his wife. They're leaving the country and take this last opportunity to say some really nasty things to everyone.
Just as things are building to a head, the scene stops – doesn't end, just stops – and with a change of set we're in something like a TV studio for a panel discussion on The Five Essential Freedoms Of The Individual.
Having shed their characters from the first scene, the actors now speak randomly assigned single lines and fragments on such topics as The Freedom To Write The Script Of My Own Life, The Freedom To Separate My Legs (It's Nothing Political), and The Freedom To Look Good & Live Forever, which amount essentially to the right to instant gratification of every whim, from health and happiness through cosmetic surgery to drugging unruly children.
We then leap once again to the nirvana the interloping couple from the first scene escaped to, which seems to be a psychotic fantasy world that can only be sustained through constant effort.
The play is evidently about the human desire for happiness, and the impossibility or absurdity of the quest. But Crimp swings so widely and wildly in his satire, particularly in the long central section, that by the time he's through satirising conformity, the big brother state, snobbery, therapy, airport security, drugging children, liposuction, cats (why cats?) and every cliché of pop psychology and pop sociology, his outrage is so dissipated as to be ineffective.
Worse, that whole central section, as clever as it sometimes is – and for a lot of its hour it is saying 'Oh how clever I am' – is essentially nondramatic, just a bunch of talking heads addressing us directly, and the several songs (music by Roald van Oosten) that punctuate the action seem like desperate attempts to inject some theatrical life.
That this central hour comes alive at all is a credit to director Dominic Cooke and the actors, who work hard to find the humour or hints of reality in every line. Indeed, your strongest impression of the evening is likely to be admiration for the yeoman work of the cast that includes Emma Fielding, Anna Calder-Marshall, Paul Ready and Michelle Terry.
This is not the incoherent work of an incompetent playwright. It is, characteristically for Martin Crimp, the work of a skilled writer without any inclination to make it easy for the audience, who is speaking a private language that it is up to us to do the work of understanding.
If you accept that challenge, you may find this play fascinating, but I fear it is likely to be more frustrating than satisfying.