By Patrick Marber
Closer is the inaugural production of a new, self-funded theatre company on the block, and I wish it well, because there were buckets of energy and skill in all aspects of this first show. My reservations are mainly about the chosen play, a very 90s narcissistic exercise by Patrick Marber, who among other things wrote the screenplay for that unpleasantly discomfiting film Notes on a Scandal starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. The play has been hugely popular since its first production at the National Theatre in London in 1997, first in the small Cottesloe then in the Lyttelton, finally transferring to the West End and thereafter in little and state theatres all over the place, a fixture for both amateur and professional companies. It premiered in New York in 1999 and was made into a film in 2004, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Clive Owen. What a cast! The play promises to be another Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Edward Albee), which was also later made into a film and directed by Mike Nichols, always being revived because it has four really meaty roles, but still somehow a dated version of lovers tearing each other apart (in Albee’s case the 1960s). Marber himself has been a comedian, director, poker player, playwright/screenwriter and also, according to one interview, has some experience of all-out romantic warfare.
I didn’t see the film, but I might eventually get out a DVD when there’s nothing else on the box. Marber himself has said that it’s all in the dialogue, which is clever, in many cases memorable, and very theatrical, so I wonder whether it is also successful cinematically as Virginia Woolf was. Mind you, Taylor and Burton could flay each other verbally, and the sexual potency of their relationship would still leap off the screen. Jude Law and Clive Owen are no mean shakes in the bad-boy sex department either, so I shall look forward to the DVD eventually.
Let me first comment on the set designed by Kitty Taube. It was spare: white on white minimalist screens which reminded me of some wonderful Lee-U Fan paintings in the Queensland Art Gallery. On the back screen explanatory information was occasionally projected: “St Bart’s” (the hospital) in the first scene where Dan (Christopher Sommers) has taken Alice (Jackie Mison) after her accident; “London”, same scene, just in case we didn’t know where St Bart’s was. The screen was most effective though in the silent scene between Dan and Larry (Norman Doyle) where they sit at opposite sides of the stage and engage with each other in a chat room called London Fuck, Dan pretending to be a woman called Anna. Their silent conversation is projected on the screen as they type on their laptops, and the only noise comes from the rapid clicking of the keys and the giggles and gasps from the audience as the “chat” becomes raunchier and more intimate and outrageous, all this punctuated by two very brief phone calls to Larry and his monosyllabic replies (he is far too caught up in the sexy messages coming out of his laptop to want to prolong the calls). The rest of the set was taken up with a few cubes which served as seats and tables, and a rumpled bed which was rarely used except as a seat and seemed to mock the attempts as closeness of the lovers.
This is a very talky play, and the talk is clever. There’s much talk of euphemisms, most amusingly flagged in the first scene when Dan confesses to Alice that he writes newspaper obituaries for a living, although he has ambitions beyond that. In this “Siberia of journalism”, a phrase like “He valued his privacy” means that the deceased was gay, “He enjoyed his privacy” means that he was a raging queen, and “He was a convivial fellow” means that he was an alcoholic. Euphemism and ambiguity is in the soil of the battleground where the interacting lovers try to find out just what love is, and muddle and miscommunication mark all their meetings. When Larry meets the real Anna (Kathryn Fray) at the Aquarium in an encounter which Dan has deliberately set up in the chat room, the identity confusion adds some spice to the eventual coupling. Anna, the photographer who sees herself as a critical observer of the human carnival, nevertheless is still concerned to create beauty in her portraits of sad people, and implicit in all her relationships is this sense of the voyeur. Contrasted with the ambiguities are searing moments of accuracy and self-knowledge: “Have you ever seen a human heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood”; or “I’ve spent a lifetime fucking and never known how to make love.” In all this, the cop-out of the age is “I chose to be selfish.” And so on.
I suppose this was what I found tedious in the play: the endless betrayals and deceit, the selfishness, the choreographed and constant testing and anatomising (pun intended) of relationships. As my favourite teenager would say, “It’s all so last century.” Sexual politics, I think, have moved on, and maybe, as Hugh Mackay has said, we are moving out of the dreamy, self-obsessed years of the last quarter of the twentieth century. The action spreads over 4 years, and sometimes it is only half way through a scene that the passage of time becomes clear, and the intensity and repetitiveness of yet another lovers’ quarrel become just another meaningless game. In these games Jackie Mison as Alice and Kathryn Fray as Anna are superb. They both articulate the complex dialogue crisply and clearly, and they look wonderful and have great stage presence. I can’t say the same about the men, who not only threw away quite a few of the good lines, but also were often clumsy on stage compared with the girls. I don’t know why Christopher Sommers as Dan had to be quite so shambolic. I guess a writer of obituaries might wear a daggy jumper, but the whole effect made me think that Alice and Anna needed their heads read to be turned on by him. Likewise for Norman Doyle as Larry, who seemed to think that the shout and the rant are all you need to express your passionate self. Yes, the language was strong and repetitive and might have offended some of the audience, although I didn’t sense any ruffled sensibilities, and I did love Alice’s shiny red wig.
Directed by Mark Conaghan
Playing 8-18 August 2007.
Duration : 2 hours (including 20-min interval).