Danny returns from Basra to a foreign England and a different kind of battle. He visits an old flame, buys a gun and goes on a blistering road trip through the new home front.
Written during the London bombings of 2005, Motortown is a fierce, violent and controversial response to the anti-war movement – and to the war itself. Chaotic and complex, powerful and provocative, Simon Stephen’s play portrays a volatile and morally insecure world.View this production on the Royal Court Timeline
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Dates in April
|Fri 21 Apr 2006||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs|
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Michael Coveney, Whats On Stage, 25 April 2006
The Royal Court has at last come up with a play on its main stage that is worthy of celebrating 50 years of the English Stage Company. Simon Stephens’ Motortown charts a bleak homecoming and possesses three appropriate qualities: a monomaniac, psychotic hero in the vein of John Osbornes misfits; a deeply awkward post-Sarah Kane challenge to the liberal consensus on both domestic violence and war-mongering; and an obvious, rather brilliant, debt of honour to the first European working class tragedy, Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck.
The motortown in question is not Detroit, but Dagenham in Essex, home of the Ford plant in Britain. Danny (Daniel Mays) is an ex-soldier who has served in Basra during the recent conflict. Like Woyzeck, he has had “extraordinary dreams”, and he passes through the plays eight scenes (the running time is 95 minutes) in a trance of dislocation and despair.
His retarded, or autistic (we are not sure which), brother tells him his girlfriend (Daniela Denby-Ashe) does not want to see him after receiving weird letters. He goes to see her anyway. He acquires a gun. Another friend, whose teenage girlfriend, Jade (Ony Uhiara), he invites out, says that “9/11” should be a film, and that he would happily pay to see a show called “Bulger: the Musical.” This reference to the murder of a child by other children was too much for some audience members, who left the first night noisily. But it makes a valid point about our desensitised attitude towards modern horrors and indeed the spiritual vulgarity that causes them.
Ramin Gray’s superb production on a bare stage with a bank of visible lights and visible stage management has a beautiful choreography of chairs and movement that suggests an army drill routine. On the outing, Danny stabs Jade’s hand with a cigarette then shoots her at point blank range. He stuffs her in a body bag, leaving the stage covered in blood.
As the other actors mop up like an Olympic curling team, Purcell’s ineffably sad and glorious “Didos Lament” fills the theatre. An encounter with a free-spirited, colourless middle-class couple in a Southend hotel – Danny is invited to join them for sex – completes one helluva day. In Basra, he says, he never abused a prisoner: “Its just you come back to this.”
As a picture of a personality in freefall, Daniel Mays performance is quite extraordinary: supple, aggressive, fearless, disturbing. And Stephens who won the Olivier best play award for last year On the Shore of the Wide World at the National has written an instant modern classic, the first major ant-anti-war play of this era.
Soldier’s tale that brings war home * * * *
Lyn Gardner, Tuesday April 25, 2006, The Guardian
In Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck, a young illiterate soldier returns home from war and is so alienated that his only way of expressing himself is through violence.
In the latest play from Simon Stephens, it is Danny – a squaddie who has served in Basra – who is bringing the war back home. To Danny it is not Iraq but England that is the foreign country. “I don’t blame the war. The war was all right. I miss it. It’s just you come back to this,” he says.
The ‘this’ is a girl who doesn’t love him, and who has got herself another boyfriend. It is an England where the “war on terror” has become a war waged using the tactics of the terrorists. It is also a place of dubious moralities, small-time arms dealers and middle class swingers and anti-war protesters.
Nobody is coming up smelling of roses, and this England has all the stinking attractions of a dog turd. Perhaps it is no surprise that Danny is going to turn his disappointment and inarticulate rage into an inarticulate revenge.
Anyone familiar with Stephens’ previous work may be in for a bit of a shock. In his excavations of working class life, Stephens has often displayed a tender touch. Motortown is like being run over by a 10-tonne truck that doesn’t bother to stop to check that you are still breathing.
It is in no way a pleasant experience, but is, I think, an essential one. And it is not without a desperate, brutal tenderness, particularly in the relationship between the life-damaged Danny and his genetically damaged elder brother, Lee.
It is only with his brother that Danny gropes towards a kind of communication. There are imperfections: although the play is recklessly brave, its aim is sometimes that of the scatter gun, and in suggesting that Danny was a psychopath long before he went to Iraq, or perhaps even joined the army, Stephens undercuts the connection between personal violence and violence perpetrated in the name of the state.
But although it will probably get up a lot of liberal noses, this is a searingly honest play written and played particularly by Daniel Mays as Danny, with a deadly coiled energy. It owes a debt to Edward Bond as well as Bchner, and Ramin Gray’s stark production – played under bright lights, on a stripped-out stagea is thrustingly contemporary even as it pays homage to Brecht.
I could have done without the dancing furniture, but not the astonishing moments when blood is mopped from the stage in a ritual that feels both like absolution and a terrible punishment.
The War was alright…I miss it
Alastair Macaulay, Financial Times, April 25 2006
The story told by Simon Stephens’ exceptional, disturbing new play Motortown is very like that of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, but it is very now and entirely British.
Danny, the protagonist, feels like nobody’s protagonist. He has come back from serving with the army in Basra to find that he is no kind of hero, that he served in a war that is an embarrassment, and that friends, acquaintances, strangers dont want to hear what he has to tell. Gradually what emerges is a portrait of a man without the moral or intellectual resources to cope with the terrors of army discipline, never mind the horrors of military action. And what reveals itself is his need to re-enact at home the unprovoked violence that he helped to commit out there.
Danny – superbly played by Daniel Mays – is alienated from everyone except maybe his brother Lee; he is prone to invent swagger stories that make his life back home sound more remark-able than the blank it is. When rejected by one woman, he takes it out on another. While he talks to her, he reveals a mixture of pent-up aggression, inarticulacy, and (of all things) charm but he commits on her three sudden acts of minor torture; then, casually, he kills her. The scene is strange, horrifying, and utterly believable. As he zips her body up into a body- bag, he goes on talking to her about the anti- war protesters: “They’re French exchange students…They’re Hasidic Jews in swimming pools. They’re lesbian cripples with bus passes. They’re niggers …Im not joking. I fought a war for this lot.”
What follows, unexpectedly, is the funniest scene in the play. Danny meets a married couple who are interested in having sex with him; he takes a while to realise that, and they take longer to realise whats on his mind. When he asks them if they went on the anti-war march in Hyde Park and they say yes, he cheerfully tells them how hed like to have been there and gunned them all down. Since they dont know hes got a girls body in the boot of his car, they dont realise how serious hes being.
It so happens that my eldest nephew went out for his second stint in Basra last Saturday; I watched Motortown with his mother who remarked afterwards that she would have gone on that anti-war march had her son not been in the army. Although my nephew is unlike Danny in crucial respects, Motortown made me appreciate him and other soldiers serving in Iraq with new compassion. It is coolly, admirably staged – the director is Ramin Gray – almost as an anti-play. No scenery; stagehands visible; the actors shift the minimal furniture. Scene follows scene at first without any narrative thread; were not even sure they’re in chronological order until we do.
But from the start, the play makes us sense, absolutely, the weird distance between Danny and the rest of life in Essex. And bit by bit it takes us down into his psyche. “I don’t blame the war. The war was all right. I miss it. Its just you come back to this.”
Simon Stephens has emerged in this millennium as an outstanding young playwright. Ive particularly loved his Herons (Royal Court Theatre Upstairs) and On the Shores of the Wide World (National Theatre). With Motortown, he extends himself yet further. It is the toughest play he has given us, and the sign of his skill is how fast it holds us and how real we find it.