By Michael Vinaver, translated by Catherine Crimp
Directed by Sam Walters
Venue: Orange Tree Theatre
Date: Thursday 7th May 2009
Set: office blue carpet, white laminate table centre diagonal, three L-shaped low benches on three sides, each with white backing like a modesty screen, and a glass of water strategically placed underneath the top of the L (actors, for the use of). A few coats and jackets are hung by the cross entrances, otherwise the auditorium is bare, unusually so for this place.
The ‘play’ has no plot, nearly 30 characters, and a jumble of scenes which tell the story of a small French company being taken over by a big American multi-national, only to lose profitability due to unforeseen circumstances and end up as a small workers’ cooperative, ripe for another takeover. The circular nature of the story was commented on in the post-show, as was the topicality of the situation. Not only do we have companies going bust due to an economic downturn, but in this case the company’s problems were caused by televised interviews with an aristocrat dying of cancer – we’ve recently had similar public deaths from cancer in Jade Goody and also Farrah Fawcett. As the company makes sun tan products, the adverse publicity for sun worshipping was disastrous especially as they were just in the process of launching a major new product, Heavenly Body (from what I could gather, it was the same product in a different bottle – nothing new there, then). We get to see snippets of scenes from a lot of perspectives – the US company bosses, the French management team, the workers on the shop floor, including the union rep, and the dying Princess and her rather sycophantic interviewer. We also heard occasionally from the retailers who were concerned about taking on too much stock, and met an executive from Kronenburg at the airport.
The play began and ended with a narrator, giving us the background and then the resolution to the story. We were then into a whirlwind of management-speak as the managers discussed a promotion in a very disjointed way, and the piece pretty much carried on in that vein for the rest of the time. The three benches were occupied by three ‘couples’ – one was the Princess and her interviewer, another was the two American bosses, and the third was two women workers in the filling department. Twice during the performance they got up in unison and shifted position, presumably to alleviate numb bum syndrome, but otherwise they were pretty static. The two women did move around when the workers went on strike, and the central table was turned over for a while, but mainly it was the actors’ energy that kept things moving. They were so good at involving us in this fragmented plot that I even found myself looking for the TV screen when the managers were viewing the ads for the launch campaign, although I knew there was nothing there.
While I didn’t find the play hugely enjoyable, there was a lot to smile and even chuckle at. For example, I liked the two women at the airport, who half recognised each other and tried to connect with talk of briefcases and lighters and ‘weren’t you at such and such conference’. They also reflected the financial situation for their companies – now up, now down. I liked the way the workers went on spontaneous strike when they realised that management had led them into a downturn and the union rep found herself no longer in charge of their militancy. I liked little details like the reference to someone as ‘Sandra from Aerosols’, typical of the workplace, and the way the US men couldn’t pronounce the French names correctly. In the post-show, someone asked whether they could have transposed the play to England, but while that might have helped with the names, we would have lost that little touch.
All the performances were excellent – I can’t single out anyone from such a good ensemble – and I was tremendously impressed by both the actors’ hard work and their patience, especially those who had to sit on the benches for so long. So overall I kind of enjoyed myself and I would be willing to give this author’s work another go, though I won’t make it a priority. The layering of dialogue didn’t add anything extra for me and simply created an unnecessary distraction, particularly at the end when the final piece of narration was held up by frequent hubbubs of lines from the play. Another audience member commented on how the energy fell off at the end, and for me that was the reason – I liked the narration, didn’t like the hubbubs.
The post show had some of the usual questions about why this play, and about the translation, etc. Sam informed us that the translation was done by Martin Crimp’s daughter, currently doing post grad work at university, as Martin himself was too busy. I think she did a very good job, personally, as did the author apparently, after seeing her initial translations of some tricky passages selected by her father. There was also a question about the lack of punctuation in the text as mentioned in the program. Sam pointed out that we don’t use punctuation when we speak, pace Victor Borge, so not having it in the text made them all work a lot harder to discover what was actually going on.
I think the discussion relaxed and let its hair down a bit when one chap admitted he didn’t care for it much, which Sam had been expecting. I asked about the author’s intention regarding the humour. Sam reckoned both author and actors would be delighted if audiences laughed. Some of the actors chipped in as well; apparently we were a good audience, and they also find there’s not many gags as such but a lot to smile and chuckle over, a background rumble I think it was called. Someone raised the question of the playwright’s political leanings. A reviewer had commented on a passage supporting Communism in the second half, but Sam didn’t rate that idea, nor did most of us I reckon. In fact, I saw the commercial logic in the need to cut back when times are tough – if there’s no company, there’s no jobs at all – while Steve saw echoes of Dario Fo’s work in the surreal and absurd nature of the situation. I also felt the style was a lot like the Vaclav Havel plays we saw last year, especially Mountain Hotel.
An interesting piece, and well performed, though not entirely to my liking.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me