Spectacularly strange US thriller given an outlandish production in the Royal Court’s new temporary space, The Site
With a relative lack of fanfare, the Royal Court has opened up a third (temporary) venue: The Site, a small building complex out the back that’s been turned into a sort of experimental theatre lab, overseen by Chloe Lamford, the new-writing theatre’s associate designer.
Earlier in the year it hosted a short season of one-week-long runs of shows. But now it’s throwing its doors open for a ‘proper’ run: US playwright Julia Jarcho’s surrealist noir ‘Grimly Handsome’, in a production without a formal director credit but ‘created by’ Lamford and Sam Pritchard.
Even if it were given the soberest production in the world, ‘Grimly Handsome’ would still be pretty out there. It’s an experimental black comedy set among the marginalia of an American city. In the first act, the three actors – Alex Austin, Alex Beckett and Amaka Okafor – play a pair of murderous Slavonic Christmas tree vendors and their victim, who they may or may not know from ‘back home’; in the second, the same actors are the police on the first set of characters’ tail (though there is some suggestion they are all one and the same); in the third, they’re a trio of escaped red pandas scavenging corpses left by the killers because why not, eh?
It is a short, very strange play that seems to posit the idea that identity becomes porous on the margins of society, that civilisation is, to some extent, a ritual, and that these people and animals are functions of the edge of a city as much as they are individuals with free will.
It would have been fascinating to see what the original 2013 US production was like, as ‘Grimly Handsome’ seems to lend itself to a chicly Lynchian interpretation. As it is, Lamford and Pritchard have created a sort of school play on acid, with the audience seated in a gymnasium-like main room while much of the action unfolds in luridly dressed sub-rooms or in the space outside the theatre, which we watch via live video screens. It is weird and bright and nerve-jangling and infused with the faint psychosis of the festive season.
It’s a WTF production of a WTF play. If it was in one of the Court’s other theatres, I would perhaps drill down into it a bit more and maybe conclude that the production gets in the way of the play a bit. However, ‘Grimly Handsome’ is rattled off with such freewheeling panache that I don’t want to get bogged down in joyless overanalysis. It is a play of dark, even sinister ideas, but it doesn’t ask to be taken too seriously. This gleeful exercise in inventive strangeness is the Royal Court’s Christmas gift to us all.