Sunday, June 28, 2009

Of Mice And Men

Grasses Of A Thousand Colours, Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London, Saturday May 30 2009, 3pm.

It was a blazing hot Saturday afternoon when your bustling blogger was making his way to the Royal Court Theatre in London's Sloane Square. A superficially unremarkable middle-aged man in a baseball cap came in from the opposite direction just a few steps ahead, to be swooped upon by a number of people fervently seeking his autograph. Peering up to see the source of the obstruction to our path, we recognise the slightly startled features of the playwright Wallace Shawn* looking at your curious correspondent as if he had identified his own Mark Chapman waiting in the wings. We would like to say relax, Wally, we haven't got a gun, we just wanna get in to see your play, man but we don't, finding a side door instead.

Now probably the one thing you really wouldn't want to discover on sitting down in an intimate studio (the performance is in the relatively tiny Jerwood Theatre Upstairs) at a start of a three-hour plus play on a baking hot day in late May is that the air-conditioning isn't working. If that wasn't enough to get us hot under the collar we found Miranda Richardson directly asking us if we were interested in sex, and if we weren't, to leave the theatre with immediate effect. Which is as good a way to start a play as any.

Shawn's play was about cats and mice, donkeys and rabbits, man and his best friend (and we're not referring to a dog). Cats play with mice, we're told, not because they can, but because they actively enjoy it. Parallels between cats and mice and women and men are drawn throughout the piece, with bestial-themed fantasies langorously recalled as fact rather than metaphor. It's not just sex wars that pre-occupy the piece, however, with a vomiting disease taking hold as a result of manipulations in the foodchain, and a meditation on mortality dominating the final act.

There was an enormous amount to enjoy in the performance - Shawn is a skilled orator (much of the play is in monologue) and a wonderfully mesmering wordsmith, given sterling support by the glacial presence of Miranda Richardson, Jennifer Tilly in showstopping form and physique, and a game Emily McDonnell. The play was eery and pertinent; overflowing with ideas and themes; loaded with portent and intrigue, and made good use of dramatic entrances, exits and projected film. Although some of the material might easily offend, invariably this was spoken word and there was very little graphic action on show to frighten the horses (although the sight of Miranda Richardson lapping at Mr Shawn's bald pate might not be everyone's saucer of milk).

Titillation certainly wasn't the order of the day, with the young lady next to me remarking on the humidity in the room before casually hitching her skirt up several inches providing the biggest frisson of the afternoon's entertainment (aside from Ms Tilly's devastating sideways glances and daring decolletage). It could indeed be argued that a little bit of action might have brought some life to what was a huge running length for a play that was so centred on lengthy monologues. Either that, or some prudent editing, might have reduced some of the inevitable longuers in such a structure.

Perhaps all could be forgiven if the piece was driven to a firm conclusion, but the response to these lengthy meditations on man's inevitable meddling with animals, and the dire consequences that result, seemed to be a resigned shrug, an intelligent, metaphorical hybrid of 'shit happens'. We came anticipating controversy, but not expecting the stark revelation to be the playwright's own ambivalence laid shockingly bare for all to see.

*Now if that sounds like a bit of namedropping, Mr Shawn was no stranger to this either it seemed, as he took justifiably great pleasure in informing the frankly adoring box office staff that Neil Tennant from Pet Shop Boys may well be dropping by if he gets time after rehearsals.

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