Writer Martin Crimp, director Katie Mitchell and actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan in discussion with the Royal Court’s Diversity Associate, Ola Animas...… Read more
Clair wants to be kissed – but not now – and certainly not by her husband. Chris wants to celebrate his new job by driving into the oncoming traffic. Jenny arrives to complain about the screaming children – but the garden’s empty, and the key to the playroom’s disappeared. Just what strange game is being played here?
Three characters fight to make sense of a surreal and collapsing world in this darkly comic mystery.
Martin Crimp’s Attempts on her Life premiered at the Royal Court in 1997 and was recently given a new production by Katie Mitchell at the National Theatre. Their previous collaborations include The Country and Face to the Wall at the Royal Court and The Seagull (National). Martin Crimp also created the new translation of Rhinoceros for the Royal Court.
Riveting… Katie Mitchell’s production is alive to every raw nerve
— Time Out *****
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Dates in April
|Thu 24 Apr 2008||12:00am||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs|
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5 stars Jane Edwardes, Time Out, Tuesday 6th May 2008
Show of the Week
Martin Crimp’s bewildering, but always riveting new play suffers from a bad case of urban angst: being adrift in a fear of random attacks, jobs lost, children abducted and hostile, snooping neighbours. In 2000, Crimp wrote ‘The Country’, in which an unhappy couple find no respite away from the city. The couple in this new play are no happier, but the playwright has added a surrealistic layer.
Katie Mitchell’s production is alive to every raw nerve, as the wall-like curtain is lifted to show a streamlined interior. Hattie Morahan as Clair and Benedict Cumberbatch as Chris confront each other in a series of scenes that take place over a single year. Chris is anxious about the fate of his job in a global company and obsessed with the power of a woman called Jeanette; Clair, a translator, is equally preoccupied with a famous writer, Mohammad, whom she meets in the street and who fails to kiss his daughter good-bye. The girl is going to live with his sister-in-law, who despises him. How odd is that?
Other disturbing stories are told and strange events occur – Chris loses his job and becomes a butcher at Sainsbury’s – which are never explained. Two bizarre characters appear. Firstly, there’s the neighbour, a nurse who moves and talks like a malfunctioning clockwork toy. Then there’s Chris and Clair’s young daughter, who is bafflingly also dressed as a nurse and is spookily grown-up.
As if to explain these odd interlopers, Clair admits that they have been invented by her, but that they wouldn’t come alive, just as the nurse complains that her piano-playing is lifeless. In contrast, Mohammad talks of the death of his child as an aid to making ‘the fire burn more brightly’. There are no neat explanations, but the sense of anxiety, plus Crimp’s apparent revulsion for his trade, make for very unsettling viewing. 4 stars Michael Billington, The Guardian, Thursday 1st May
Eight years ago Martin Crimp’s The Country launched an assault on the comforting pastoral myth. Now he follows it with The City, which deals with a prevailing sense of urban angst. Yet, although this is the most disquieting play in London, there is a curious exhilaration about both the performance and Crimp’s confrontation with our perpetual unease.
Crimp works through half-hints and verbal links rather than linear narrative. He starts with a tense husband-and-wife scene. Clair describes a chance encounter with a writer named Mohamed, famed for his graphic accounts of torture, who has given her a diary intended for the daughter from whom he has been cruelly separated. Chris, meanwhile, is obsessed by his own disastrous day in which he has learned that the firm for which he works is to be restructured. Clair’s fascination with Mohamed and that of Chris with another woman, Jeanette, implies a disintegrating marriage.
By the end of the scene, Crimp has established his key motifs: insecurity, fear, fractured parent-child bonds, global persecution. The mixture is enriched by the eruption of a distraught neighbour, Jenny, the nursing wife of a doctor caught up in a foreign war, who complains about the disturbance of her daytime sleep by Chris and Clair’s screaming children. This leads us to the heart of Crimp’s compelling play. He is not equating bourgeois inconvenience with imperialist cruelty. What he suggests, as in Attempts On Her Life, is that modern urban existence is defined by despair, and that there is a grisly continuum of collective unhappiness.
You don’t have to share Crimp’s bleak vision to relish its subtle articulation or Katie Mitchell’s superbly disciplined production. Vicki Mortimer’s design has a fine monochrome austerity and Gareth Fry’s sound is marked by a low hum suggesting Tennyson’s murmuring of innumerable bees. Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan are impeccably fraught as Chris and Clair: they suggest a couple forever tiptoeing on eggshells. There is a fine moment when, as Morahan’s face lights up in describing a meeting with Mohamed, Cumberbatch shields his eyes in sadness.
Amanda Hale turns Jenny into a haunting mix of recrimination and gawkiness, not least when she totters around in absurd stilettos. But the brilliance of this 80 minute play lies in the way it allows the audience to create its own story. When Crimp introduces a child into the action, we become shockingly aware of the inherited damage of future generations. We emerge deeply disturbed, but aware of a writer in full control of his talent. 4 stars Robert Hewison, The Sunday Times, Sunday 4th May 2008
Benedict Cumberbatch has recently played to millions in a five-part BBC serial, The Last Enemy. In it, he portrayed an intelligent, sensitive, educated man who returns from abroad to an England that appears, superficially, to be as it always was, but turns out to be a society collapsing into madness, murder and paranoia, where nothing is as it seems in the surveillance state. He was brilliant
Cumberbatch is now playing to a few thousand at the Royal Court. He takes the part of an intelligent, sensitive man who loses his job in the City, and whose inner life collapses; nothing is as it seems. The scale is different. In Martin Crimp’s play for three adults and a child, there are no hidden cameras, computer screens, skyscrapers and armoured police, no politicians or assassins, but there is the same feeling of being above an abyss. Cumberbatch is brilliant, as are Hattie Morahan and Amanda Hale.
Neither Crimp nor his director, Katie Mitchell, is known for making things easy, but here there is a plot that can be summarised and a production that seems naturalistic. There is nothing too unusual about the man’s middle-class milieu, his pretty translator wife (Morahan) or even the slightly odd neighbour (Hale), a nurse whose husband is an army doctor. Except that these superficial realities don’t compute.
The play opens in classic ordinariness: husband comes home from the office; he and wife discuss their day, and somehow talk past each other. She had a strange encounter at the railway station. The politics at his office are bad. She has been given a diary. His prospects aren’t looking good. Only the two sets of shadows on the walls suggest the deep separation between them.
Yet, though there is something destructive in business life, especially when a man loses his job, and with it his sense of identity, this is not the City Crimp has in mind. A second city is evoked, somewhere like Fallujah, when the nervous neighbour describes what her husband has seen on active service, which is enough to make anyone jumpy.
This is not the City of Crimp’s title either, though. That appears only at the end, where two other metaphors carefully hidden on the texts surface reveal their deeper meaning. The translator is in contact with writers – the strange encounter at the station, for example – people who can transform their suffering into fiction. But she cannot write, only translate. The nurse has a seemingly inconsequential introductory speech about being technically able to play the piano, yet unable to make music. Neither connects.
Absolutely nothing in the text is without purpose, not even the daughter’s innocently obscene limerick. Using a minimalist design by Vicki Mortimer and an unsettling soundscape by Gareth Fry, Mitchell fine-tunes every twitch of the body language and exactly calculates the distance needed between husband and wife to show they are coming apart. This perfect naturalism, however, is at the service of a more profound unreality, of Magritte-like moments when the cast move in slow motion or the child enters, her clothes identical to the neighbour’s.
In the end, as we learn from the contents of the diary so inconsequentially introduced, the City is a city of the mind, a place of the imagination that is as broken and bereft as Fallujah, itself an emblem of the commercial warfare that is business life. It is as though these ordinary, average people and the normal, conventional world they inhabit share some deep moral stain. In 90 minutes of theatre, The City achieves what it takes five hours of television drama to do.
In the final scene, the child plays her party piece on the piano. It is familiar: it has been overheard from the neighbour’s flat. She goes wrong, starts again. She falters, stops again. The curtain falls. With this incompletion, the sense of desolation is made complete.
- Writer Martin Crimp, director Katie Mitchell and actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan in discussion with the Royal Court’s Diversity Associate, Ola Animashawun. Download this Podcast