Monday, November 23, 2009

Critical Perspective of The Country by Dr. Natalie Meisner

On the surface Martin Crimp’s play seems to plunge us into the most quintessential of middle class dilemmas: the revelation of sexual infidelity in marriage. This narrative arc usually includes the ramping up of jealousy and distrust and ends in a bitter quagmire of smashed dreams, unravelled love, and eroded empathy. While these elements do appear in The Country, both the script itself and Theatre Junction’s production dissect the cliché to reveal far grittier conflicts such as the breakdown of communication and the sheer brutal power of language itself to inflict and precipitate wounds of various kinds.

Crimp’s dialogue is a fast ferocious barrage that, for all its formal beauty, leaves no character (and likely no audience member) with an illusion intact about the inherent goodness of human nature. Richard and Corinne have moved out to the country together to raise their children in pursuit of a pastoral dream of innocence and rebirth and yet each character’s ironic stance toward such dreams foreshadows this impossibility. As the play unfolds their dreams and the dream home the couple live in (built in a restored grainery!) are revealed as a battered and flimsy shelter incapable of withstanding the intrusions of Richard’s mistress Rebecca and dangerous double life.

The spatiality of the house is exploited to underscore the way that Richard attempts to keep the dissonant elements of his world separate. He and Rebecca have an agreement that includes total secrecy and separation that is punctured when he becomes worried about her safety and brings her to his home. The extent to which the separation has been executed is underscored when she asks the children’s names and he replies that they don’t have names. It is unavoidable that Rebecca meets Corrine and Richard’s lies are hauled out into the clear light of day. And yet he still tries to preserve something: Rebecca may not pass through the children’s room. She wishes to have a shower, but to do so she would have to walk through the last bastion of innocence and perhaps stain it with her presence. The desire for purity, cleanliness and innocence here are reminiscent of Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House (2004).

The association between sleep and innocence is powerfully interrogated. While the young woman is asleep the wife can find empathy for her, but she becomes somehow monstrous upon waking. The children sleep and as long as they are awakened they can remain in the blameless unknowing state of bliss/ignorance. If they are not awakened they cannot hear their father’s story: A story that in no way resembles a bedtime story. If none of us are awakened we need not be troubled by the fate of the young woman. We need not wonder at the harm she might have received at the hands of a man of healing (another layer of irony) as Corrine asks Richard whether he gave Rebecca something to help her sleep, or to make her sleep. It is hard to commit a crime in your sleep although you can be made complicit if you are literally or figuratively sleepwalking.

The ambivalence of Richard’s position is underscored by the economy of gift giving in the play. A delicate, beautiful watch is given to the mistress while the risqué high heels are given to the wife and both gifts, in way are destined to become objects of desire and aggression.

Crimp has created three intensely intelligent characters whose modus operandi is to use the other two as verbal and emotional punching bags. Husband and wife work one another over with verbal jabs and rhetorical low blows that ironically end up showing us not why they should part company, but why they are destined to stay together. We are witness to the perverse delight they find in one another, a delight akin to peeling a scab or sucking a wound. Rebecca, far from being an unwitting victim of the abuse of power at the hands of a pillar of the community, is instead an intelligent iconoclast with her own challenging views about history and her own set of problems may involve but are not fully created by Richard. She is not a device of plot.

In terms of pacing and delivery, links could be made to David Mamet, but Crimp worries less about teasing and pleasing the audience. There is a flying-without-a-safety net or a grasping-in-the-dark-quality to the way that Crimp uses symbolism to expose the workings of power that, for me, has affinities with post-realist Caryl Churchill. Structurally this piece does not adopt the additive “anything goes” approach that some postmodern plays do. Instead it riffs powerfully upon our narrative expectations. A thematic element is introduced and then elaborated upon not through deductive reasoning, but through the logic of the tangent and the peripheral … like great jazz.

This play is not about keeping up appearances and it is not about staying together for the kids, although both of these ideas are present. It is an odd and an unconventional portrait of a marriage that highlights the tangled web of desire, want/need and addiction and scorches (or is scorched by) the life of a young woman with big ideas.

The skilled delivery and complex character work of the Theatre Junction cast is evident throughout. Byrne and Thiriet steer clear of the too easy “cat-fight” tone that could gloss over the very real conflict between the two women and this allows them to lay bare the fascinating inner workings of their characters, while Lawes resists the temptation to turn Richard into either a victim or a monster. The cast use words like weapons, as the cruelty of Crimps text demands, but they also nuance their characters with a multifaceted vulnerability. We somehow never lose sight of the fact that these weapons could blow up in their hands at any moment.

The set design is elegant and sparse, introducing a powerful visual vocabulary that underscores the notions of complicity and framing that are so central this play. This is a must see for those in search of an intellectual and aesthetically challenging theatre experience.

Dr. Natalie Meisner
Department of English, Mount Royal University

CLICK HERE to buy tickets to THE COUNTRY

Critical Perspective of The Country by Michael Thomas Taylor

In this staging of The Country, a series of four dialogues played in a single room, the intimacy of Martin Crimp’s text is zoomed up to loom large over the audience. Julie Fox’s richly austere set has outsized the proscenium – usually absent in Theatre Junction – into a frame that disappears as it engulfs. Within this space, the first scenes play out across rectangles of light running across and up – a set of stairs, a solid wood table extended laterally through the wooden floor – that project axes on which the characters contest duels of “violence, cruelty, and sexual competition,” as we read in Mark Lawes’ concise introduction. The first scene assaulted me with its energy, which exploded inexplicably but relentlessly out of its questions and cross-questions. Mark Lawes is balled and pugnacious, Fiona Byrne desperately deliberate and contained, and it matters little that only one of them draws blood. The tight, delimited space of the theatre has always held a special power to represent the claustrophobia of our domestic worlds and the psychological dystopias we create at home. Crimp is compressing dramatic tradition in reducing and restricting this inner world into a theatre that is absolute because it performs only dialogue, and his text gives no directions to frame this performance beyond the sparse naming of several objects: “A large room, wooden chairs, an old table.” The play could be performed in cinematic close-ups, or on a runway where characters speak past each other, or directly at the audience. But here, in a space simultaneously centered and pushed off kilter with shadows, I found myself dizzied as if its pettiness had suddenly become twenty feet tall.

It was the words that made me most dizzy. Having read the play in the afternoon, I had the sense that they persisted from the text not as ideas or thoughts, but as things. Sharp, lightweight things – like the syringes in Rebecca’s bag. This was at first an effect of Crimp’s dialogues and the clarity with which they were performed. Crimp forces apart the banal weapons and damaging effects of intimate quarrels: the formulaic rejoinders, habitually defensive or aggressive, that come tumbling out of one partner before the other has finished; the duplicity between what is said and what is left unsaid; the swift punches that land square because their angle of attack is oblique. The work centers on these fissures. In Crimp’s most celebrated play, the baffling and post-modern Attempts on Her Life, the title’s heroine exists only in a dismembered state of seventeen identities. The effect of Crimp’s dialogue in this piece, superficially less avant-garde, is similar. The characters are effects of the exchange – flashpoints where words manage to hit their mark and make their violence visible. And when the words do claim a certain weight, when they seem to refer to solid and heavy things outside in the world, or to flesh, they express desires of belonging, of finding some place in the world, in which the voice metamorphoses into the landscape it bespeaks.

This outside is Crimp’s country, which the text imagines to be wet: a glass of water from the kitchen, the sounds of a shower upstairs, or a moist landscape of moss and fell. It is tasteless, pure, absorbing, cleansing. The third character Rebecca, played with corrosive vulnerability by Raphaele Thiriet, embodies the only way in or out. For me, the strength of this performance was to frame this threshold as the violent pivot of the play, and to anchor our view firmly in this frame.

Michael Thomas Taylor
Assistant Professor of German
The University of Calgary

CLICK HERE to buy tickets to THE COUNTRY