American uber-satirist Bruce Norris rightly sees social taboos as scabs to be picked. And his outrageous comedies bring some ruthlessly dirty fingernails to bear on the anxieties of the Western bourgeoisie.
Two of the most outrageous of those comedies, ‘The Pain and the Itch’ and ‘Clybourne Park’ have premiered here at the Royal Court, directed by the theatre’s outgoing boss Dominic Cooke. Norris has been the perfect writer for Cooke’s mission statement at London’s classiest writers’ theatre: to put its middle-class audience on the stage.
So it’s a shame that Norris’s new play – also Cooke’s swansong here – falls short of his foul-mouthed, sharp-minded Socratic best. This time, Norris has gone for the root instead of the nerve, with a zippy parable about the evils of capitalism (and slavery).
Set in eighteenth-century America and narrated by the neo-cons’ favourite philosopher, Adam Smith, ‘The Low Road’ tracks the misadventures of two symbolic lads: a poor, brazen white foundling called Trumpett (Johnny Flynn) and a noble, thespian slave called Blanke (Kobna Holdbrooke-Smith).
With its buccaneering plot, and wink-wink literary knowingness, this feels a lot like a cynical po-mo version of a great eighteenth-century cock-and-bull novel such as ‘Tristram Shandy’ or ‘Tom Jones’. The ruthless young Trumpett, inspired by Smith’s theory that one man’s pursuit of wealth will trickle down to the whole of society, sells his adoptive mother up the river, then robs or rapes pretty much everyone he meets.
This, we are invited to see, is ‘the low road’ and it’s a road that Trumpett and America, represented by his modern descendant Dick Trumpett of TrumpettBank Global LLC (‘think Mitt Romney’ instructs the stage direction), have both taken.
There is a lot to enjoy in this sprawling production. Plenty of skulduggery. Norris’s relish for ripe eighteenth-century language. An utter lack of sentimentality. Cooke’s tremendous cast of 30, squirming into various wigs, slutty boob-thrusting corsets, military jackets and tricorne hats to swell the stage with whores, soldiers and philanthropists. Holdbrooke-Smith’s beautifully enunciated turn as the unfortunate Mr Blanke.
But the argument of this increasingly unfocused thesis is nearly as crude as the hero’s methods. It lacks the close focus and home truths we’ve come to expect from this brilliant playwright.
Three hours after the terrific opening act, all the characters have been sacrificed to the arguments. Those arguments – that greed is bad, humans will destroy themselves, and we shouldn’t give the keys back to the guys who crashed the economy – have breadth without depth, like so much in this ambitious but over-reaching drama. Caroline McGinn