Long before extremely online feminists (such as myself) started bandying the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ around, Patrick Marber was exploring the concept in his hit 1997 play-turned-movie ‘Closer’. It's a deeply twisted story of two men who woo, discard and swap girlfriends. It could easily feel dated, a relic of a time where female sexuality was viewed very differently. But Clare Lizzimore’s moody revival at Lyric Hammersmith makes a powerful case for revisiting it.
It starts out studiedly cool in an enjoyably ‘90s way: Alice (Ella Hunt) croons anguished Portishead lyrics in dim light, undercut by heavy drums from an onstage band. Then, she shatters the illusion by getting out a pack of tinfoil-wrapped sandwiches and inspecting the contents. She's been hit by a car, and shy-seeming obituary-writer Dan (Jack Farthing) is there with her in the hospital waiting room, ready to pick up the pieces. But soon, he starts smashing her life apart, raiding her life story for his novel and –vampire-like – turning her love into fuel for his growing sexual confidence. He hits on bold but vulnerable photographer Anna (Nina Toussaint-White), and sexually humiliates affable dermatologist Larry (Sam Troughton), enjoying the power his emotional detachment gives him.
In time-honoured fashion, Marber paints heterosexual male desire as a corrosive force that strikes like lightning and vanishes just as fast, leaving only contempt behind. But he also shows that it comes with painful vulnerability: in a standout performance, self-described ‘caveman’ Troughton crumbles as he realises that he can pay for access to a stripper’s body, but her soul stays stubbornly beyond his grasp.
In 1997, ‘Closer’ was radical for showing a sex chatroom onstage, exploring the internet’s then-revolutionary possibilities of anonymity and untrammelled sexual self-expression. Now, hilariously pervy as that scene is, it has a kind of innocence to it: a postcard from a time when the web was virgin territory. There’s a less welcome simplicity in Marber’s portrayal of this play’s female characters: Alice is a manic pixie nightmare girl, whimsical but psychologically impenetrable, while Larry’s shouts of ‘slag’ bounce off Anna’s implausibly collected exterior, their impact unexplored.
Still, there's something refreshingly frank about the way that both genders speak about sex here. Marber’s play fizzes with one-liners that still shock, as well as twists that get genuine gasps from the audience. This beautifully-judged revival is a gauntlet thrown down to the next generation of playwrights: it's time for an exploration of sex for the twenty-first century.