Mark Ravenhill's Iraq plays blog

  • Armageddon | Birth of a Nation | Crime and Punishment | Fear and Misery Intolerance | Love (But I Won't Do That) | The Mikado | The Mother | The Odyssey | Paradise Lost | Twilight of the Gods | War and Peace | War of the Worlds | Women in Love | Women of Troy | Yesterday an Incident Occurred

    Some of the 20-minute pieces (which were written very rapidly at a rate of two per week) are, inevitably, fleshier than others. After the first four instalments, I’m tending to agree with Royal Court Director Dominic Cooke in preferring the less epic, more intimate pieces. Or maybe the plays which are set in ‘over here’ rather than ‘over there’ just hit harder closer to home.

    ‘Intolerance’, where a woman’s unidentifiable stomach pain becomes a dramatic conduit for the violence and agony of the war abroad, was my favourite: partly because of Harriet Walter’s performance, which switched unerringly – and unnervingly – between ditzy, self-absorbed, middle-aged charm, and prehistoric terror. The prehistoric terror came into the picture through her account of being regressed, in the hope of curing her stomach pain, and having false memories of being trapped in Eden after the Fall with a broken wing, then hanging herself in despair.

    Despair breathes through these pieces: the suicidal soldier returns in ‘Crime and Punishment’ (a very raw and allegorical piece in which a British soldier brings in a grieving Iraqi woman he liked the look of on TV, and shoots her in the foot then the kneecap before slashing her throat because she doesn’t love him).

    He crops up again in ‘The Odyssey’, where a bunch of young soldiers who think they’re about to be sent home declaim their values of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ to the crowd of onlookers, and define ‘civilisation’ as being able to ‘get a cup of coffee and a pastry’ in the morning. There’s something horribly fervent and empty about their commitment to their slogans: a striking innocence which flatly contradicts their enthusiastic beating-to-death of the local dictator.

    It’s a strident contrast too: I felt that the soldiers, clueless kids with guns, came very close to being allegories for the policies which they were ordered to implement. Some of them were poised awkwardly between stylised and human figures, showering irrelevant Western platitudes like ‘I’m a person’ onto a blood-soaked foreign soil.

    But ‘The Mikado’ – where a gay couple sit outside on a bench, and one of them (Philip Voss) tells the other his aggressive cancer has returned – brought the rumblings of war very powerfully back into the National’s backyard again. Again, Voss’s performance, smooth good-manners concealing a terrible void within, really added flesh to the Miltonic despair which will be another motif of this cycle (‘Paradise Lost’ will be one of the concluding pieces at Village Underground in Shoreditch). This recognisable, affluent, Western character’s wish to blow his cancerous self up ‘like a bomb’ on a train and obliterate all the ‘fat, stupid, contented people’, is a startling and believable inversion of the stereotype. Western despair may belong to the old and childless, and the rich and self-pitying, more than to the young and dispossessed. But it is no less chilling and destructive.

    'The Mother' © Robert Workman

    Next stop: the Royal Court, where you can currently get such a good three-course evening of theatre that this blog is in danger of sounding like an advertorial. First up, at 6pm, is ‘The Mother’, directed by Max Stafford-Clarke and Clare Lizzimore for Out of Joint. This drama – in which a mother goes half-crazy trying not to let the two soldiers who’ve come to visit tell her that her son is dead – stands up fairly strongly off the page. It’s even better on the stage: an excellent cast is assisted by direction which acts as a referee to Ravenhill’s pugnacious but emotive little drama, instilling silences among the violences, and supporting it in the moments (such as when Lesley Manville’s mother, Haley, bites the young soldier on the nose, then wipes his face like a baby) when it’s deliberately reaching off-balance.

    Manville delivers the emotional punches in a bravura fucked-up cockney: sucking on a fag in front of her ‘breakfast telly’, she sounds like she’s speaking at the end of her last gasp right from the beginning of the scene. ‘Don’t you tell me’, she repeats, revealing how much the denial of reality is inherent in Haley’s daily phrases, which Manville fires off with the rocking rhythm of familiarity. She’s belligerent and hospitable by turns: offering the soldiers fags and breakfast rolls one minute; parodying their bestial profession by pretending to be a dog the next. When she comforts James Dagleish’s young soldier and dresses his nose with TCP, he reclines stiffly in her arms with his feet up, and they make a genuine, moving pieta on her scraggy old sofa.

    Theatre_random_CREDIT_Stephen Cummiskey (1).jpg
    Nadine Marshall in Debbie Tucker Green's
    'Random' © Stephen Cummiskey

    Later, at 9.30pm, it’s ‘Birth of a Nation’, directed by Ramin Gray. You can see both of these shorts on either side of ‘Random’ by Debbie Tucker Green, currently playing in the Downstairs theatre. And I would highly recommend doing so: firstly because popping into a twenty-minute short is great if you’re in the area but perhaps not something you’d cross town for; secondly because ‘Random’ is outstanding, a lyrical piece of theatrical poetry, which takes you from hilarity to appalled empathy via one sudden act of unexpected violence. It's driven by one hell of a performance by Nadine Marshall, who switches between playing Mother, Father, Brother and Sister in this gripping monologue at the heart of a dark and empty stage.

    ‘Random’ shows what you can do with 50 minutes, spoken-word rhythms, a timely and tragic subject and a great actress. After a 20-minute play does seem a little cramped. But Ramin Gray has a characteristically good crack at ‘Birth of the Nation’. He stages its conference (given by four ‘creatives’ who’ve been shipped in to help ‘heal’ and ‘express’ the pain of a recently war-torn people) with maximum irony, and the provocative, intimate, face-to-front delivery on a no-frills stage which he has employed to great effect in previous productions.

    'Birth of a Nation' © Robert Workman

    Again, an excellent cast makes this single-scene play more than a masterclass for theatre-types. Toby Jones, playing a performance artist, peers teasingly out at the crowd like a garden gnome with a vast superiority complex. And Pearce Quigley, woolly-hatted and banging on about pit-closures like Billy Elliot 30 lean years on, extracts laughter from even the thinnest lines. But when the stage is invaded by a tongueless, eyeless woman in a hijab, it feels like you’re coming up against the limits of the writer’s imagination or the time-limit of the play, as it’s impossible to work the contrast, or to make her presence any more than a grotesque, parodic punchline. Still, it’s stimulating stuff, and for anyone who wants a glimpse of talent, or a thought-provoking theatrical nudge, it’s highly recommended.

    Across to West London on a blustery April night for our next instalment. The tiny Gate (the feisty Notting Hill theatre, committed to international and dance-crossover programming) hosted ‘Women In Love’ and ‘Armageddon’. But not in the theatre itself, directors Carrie Cracknell and Natalie Abrahami having pulled off a kind of reverse-coup of finding two sites with even fewer seats than their own auditorium.

    Congregating in a crowded pub, an angel appeared to us. That is, a tall wordless young chap wearing a heavy overcoat, period drama good looks, and the kind of costume-shop angel wings that well-heeled party girls like to strap on over their silver bikinis appeared to us. He led us to a reclusive shared garden in a square, where we found three actors, shivering faintly in front of three microphones. In turn, they monologued their way through their three different recollections of one day in hospital, where the man was sick, the girl his lover visited him and ‘Nancy’ the gay nurse brought in the TV and took it away again.

    ‘Women In Love’, with its lack of a crux, and irksome lovers who chat about choccy titties, is so far the slightest by some way of these Ravenhill shorts. And the static staging, with actors facing resolutely forward, like a Beckettian trio turned out without justification into the open air, didn’t add much. As for our angel, he turned out to be just a piece of imagery: his actual presence, smoking a cigarette, reminded me of how much more powerfully the figure of the fallen angel had been incorporated in the dramatic story, say, of ‘Intolerance’, Harriet Walter’s monologue contribution to'Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat'.

    With ‘Armageddon’, though, I felt that Cracknell and Abrahami (and Ravenhill) were onto something. With a two-day run, and a dozen audience members squeezed down the end of a tiny double room in a local hotel, this was niche theatre taken to its extreme. But Ravenhill’s drama – of two bible belt Christians, an older woman and a younger man, meeting for a soul-straining assignation in a hired room – seethed and yearned very effectively in its alcove.

    By playing the first few minutes silently, the directors add a good slug of dramatic tension to Ravenhill’s powerful notion that each of the lovers, believing they are watched by God, is giving a real-time account to Him of their scene together. We watch the woman, Emma, for some minutes, as she frets, sits and sneaks a whisky miniature from the mini-bar. ‘And He watches me’, she eventually says, giving the audience the richly complicitous job of watching over her too, judging her, resolving whether and how they want her to be saved.

    When the young man Honor enters, the brink-skimming play of sexual temptation crowds the room. This play is, I think, too short to finish what it starts: the death of Emma’s estranged soldier-son, which the lovers see in real time on motel TV, explodes an over-large emotional and moral bomb, and the suggestive Oedipal tension of their relationship falls victim to collateral damage. There are occasions, too, when the eloquent Tennessee Williams-ish backstory collides clumsily with the CNN-dystopia of the lovers’ motel. But there’s enough that’s good and intriguing to make you hope that this niche experiment is a jumping-off point for further, more extended work.

    11am and back to the Royal Court again for a blistering diptych. 'Fear and Misery'/'War and Peace', directed by Dominic Cooke, show what you can do in a short format when director and playwright are punching powerfully at the same target. That target is the comfortably off, and their affluent ignorance, displaced fears and complacence are juxtaposed with a bloody war. Or, as the headless soldier who haunts the nightmares of young Alex (War and Peace) puts it, ‘everything exists because of me... because I go out there and kill the fucking towelheads.’

    'Fear and Misery' © Robert Workman

    'Fear and Misery' plays in the Court’s downstairs bar, where a good-looking couple are eating pasta, drinking red wine and fighting over their son’s recurring nightmare. Does he dream of the headless soldier because they are rowing? Because they don’t live in a gated community? Or because Olivia feels a tiny hint of ‘rape. Sorry. Rape. Sorry. Rape. Sorry’ in her husband’s lovemaking. Actors Joseph Millson and Joanna Riding absolutely nail the stuttering, rapid rattle of the couple’s alternately needy and aggressive dialogue. And as they fight their own domestic war on terror: rejoicing that the local gipsies are arrested; obsessively checking the batteries in the smoke alarm – a bloody soldier enters and makes his unseen way into their son’s bedroom.

    'War and Peace' © Robert Workman

    The climax may bring shades of Sarah Kane, but Ravenhill’s scrutiny of large political issues via domestic detail is recklessly pertinent, and beautifully realised by the actors. The satire is sometimes strident, with the couple voicing a few too many headline-derived anxieties, and occasionally being set up as easy targets – ‘Cuddle’ implores Harry, after accusing his wife of repressing child abuse. But their fear for, and even fear of their son, whose disturbed dreams act as a visible conduit for the kind of blood-stained reality they can’t quite wash out of their bedcovers, makes this a short but probing examination of what is repressed by our desire for security.

    If 'Fear and Misery' shows something bloody and unacknowledged stalking around the back of a middle-class marriage, 'War and Peace' takes you directly into the nightmare. In an alcove, Olivia and Harry’s seven-year-old son Alex (played with admirable self-possession by young Lewis Lempereur-Palmer) sits in bed. He’s visited by a soldier (Burn Gorman), whose bloodstained helmet has a fatal-looking chunk taken out of it. They have a ‘little secret’: the soldier lets Alex play with his gun, and Alex lets the soldier touch his ‘beautiful head’.

    It’s a shocking juxtaposition, even in the moments when the soldier’s matey, fucked-up and avuncular rather than yelling about bombs and pussy. ‘You want to take my head’ says Alex, with calm conviction. And his unnerving dream logic condenses the long chain of causes and effects which link an affluent and beloved child in London with a desperate dead squaddie: ‘Everything exists because of me…Because I go out there and fight the fucking towelheads’. Like its partner piece, 'War and Peace' might be more effective if it resisted easy lampoons (‘I do well in all my SATS…We drive an SUV’, says Alex). These feel a bit parochial, tending to play in-house to how the metropolitan middle classes feel about each other. And they’re detours away from the central achievement of the piece, which is to bring two politically complicit worlds which are geographically miles away from each other startlingly close together – and in a child’s bedroom, the place which adults wish most to defend, but also the place where children wrestle with their own terrified and violent impulses.

    Halfway through the 'Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat' cycle, and Ravenhill’s shorts are looking more and more like postcards from purgatory – with parents and ‘peacekeeping’ soldiers aspiring to the great gated community above (where freedom and democracy rule over the end of history), and the headless psychos in freefall below. Perhaps the final instalments at Village Underground will determine whose side the angels are on.

    Well, it may have been partly eclipsed by the other theatre marathons on offer right now (the RSC’s Histories, and Shared Experience’s 'War and Peace' spring to mind), but this mini-festival has been fascinating: not least for the opportunity to see, in a short period of time, so many different actors and directors imposing their own styles on a single body of work.

    Some of the acting has been a real treat too. And Deborah Findlay and Racquel Cassidy, playing victims and collaborators of the war on terror, kept the standard high for Paines Plough’s final five shorts at Village Underground. These shorts, presented in two hour-long double and triple bills in the vaulted brick warehouse space, sought to fill their surroundings with epic imagery. In the first triple bill – 'Love (But I Won’t Do That' / 'Women of Troy' / 'Paradise Lost' – director Roxana Silbert created a sense of terror, if not awe, by staging two of the pieces on long, high-wheeled trestle stages: for 'Love', the audience surrounded a dark domestic scene between a middle-aged woman and the sex-starved young soldier billeted with her; but for 'Women of Troy' the trestles wheeled round and surrounded the crowd, who were harangued from three edges by the choric women, and jostled into confusion by the suicide bomber who walked through their midst.

    Despite the ambitious staging, I felt that the choric pieces were left a bit more exposed by their brevity and lack of breadth than the domestic dramas, despite the impressive shadow-play on the tall walls of the warehouse, and the appearance of a soldier angel on high. Having got to the end of the cycle, and spotted the motifs, the characters and the arguments which return, I do hope Ravenhill develops these fragments into a single full-scale parodic epic, with focused human stories to anchor the chorus-scenes, and to truly take on Tony Kushner’s 'Angels In America', surely a very significant jumping-off point for this post 9/11 collection.

    However, 'Love (But I Won’t Do That)' admirably forced an ugly scene between a hostess and the embedded soldier who just wants to ‘come in your face’ outwards into a more general allegory. And 'Paradise Lost', the most Pinteresque of the sixteen, raised troubling questions about the limits of human sympathy – through a sketch where a woman is disturbed by her neighbour’s screams, investigates, initially defends her against the menacing mystery men who promise to ‘take care’ of her, then is tempted to join in with the torture.

    Despite its very funny Live Aid-style rendition of Michael Jackson’s ‘Millenium’ by a bunch of self-satisfied bleeding-heart liberals, 'War of the Worlds' felt a bit insular, a staged timeline of London liberal reaction to 9/11. Ravenhill is spot on when it comes to parodying parents who make their kids construct monuments to the dead out of cornflake packets, or anyone who claims to be able to ‘feel your pain’. But enlarged sympathy, and a conflict which is staged onstage rather than between the audience and the characters, are exactly what’s required to make these more than off-the-cuff lampoons.

    'Twilight of the Gods', with Findlay as the woefully insensitive but hugely well-meaning government official, and the usually melodious Cassidy making herself harsh and parched as the starving teacher being questioned for Findlay’s survey, is more striking, and gains stature by being able to inhabit both points of view.

    All in all, this has been a thought-provoking selection: some pieces more scratchy and some more polished, but all worth producing and seeing, and indeed worth larger runs and more general audiences rather than a select few. It was at least a youthful and buzzy audience which showed up at Village Underground, some of whom had come across the first plays at the National by accident, and got hooked enough to come back for more. Which made me wonder if short plays around a single theme, co-hosted by different venues with either crossover cache (like Village Underground) or an element of permanent ensemble which could absorb extra projects (like the National and the Royal Court) could form a basis for the kind of theatre festival which London currently lacks. And which might be something which could reach out attractively to the newcomers, as well as the buffs.

    | Birth of a Nation | Crime and Punishment | Fear and Misery Intolerance | Love (But I Won't Do That) | The Mikado | The Mother | The Odyssey | Paradise Lost | Twilight of the Gods | War and Peace | War of the Worlds | Women in Love | Women of Troy | Yesterday an Incident Occurred

    See full listings for participating venues
    National Lyttelton | National Cottesloe | Royal Court | Gate Theatre | Village Underground


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National Lyttelton | National Cottesloe | Royal Court | Gate Theatre | Village Underground