Martin Crimp’s The City is a difficult play: difficult to make sense of, and difficult to like. Whilst not exactly post-dramatic – as is Crimp’s other major play Attempts on Her Life – it is a theatrical puzzle box which probes, tests and, yes, tries its audience in similar ways. It is, superficially, a kind of micro-drama which seems to present the story of a strained, middle class couple in forensic detail. In this way, it has much in common with Andrew Bovell’s Speaking In Tongues, which Geordie Brookman directed for the State Theatre Company of South Australia in 2011. The City not only shares its director with that production, but lead actors Lizzy Falkland and Chris Pitman, and designer Victoria Lamb as well. Both plays are densely plotted, fragmentary and melancholic in tenor. They are both damning evocations of a particular brand of middle class neuroticism in which pitiless self-analysis has almost completely displaced love. In these brittle worlds, where the significance of a single word or gesture can be profound (and profoundly misunderstood), well-to-do suburban domesticity starts to resemble a hellish, claustrophobic void capable of suffocating out of existence the ‘spirituality’ which certain sections of the moneyed middle class find so easy to talk about.
Where The City takes us that Speaking in Tongues does not is beyond individual and familial tic and foible – and indeed beyond narrative convention itself – into far more slippery territory where potentially everything is up for grabs. The play opens with stabs of light and music which momentarily illuminate its protagonists (if that’s the right word), Chris (Pitman) and Clair (Falkland). They are plunged into darkness before we really get a chance to look at them, like the subject at the end of a camera lens going out of focus. The play is full of such moments, though this impressionism is almost always shot through with the grating insecurities of Chris and Clair, and the droll minutiae of their oh-so white collar jobs. He is in middle-management, on the verge of losing his job amidst a company ‘restructure’. She is a translator (one of Crimp’s sharpest clues) and unable to hide her passion for the literary circles which promise relief from her dreary home life. One of her clients, Mohammed, appears to be offering diversion of a different nature but nothing that happens in The City should be taken at face value.
Into this dense fog of suburban anxiety and displeasure step nurse and neighbour Jenny (Anna Steen) and a Girl (Matilda Bailey), daughter of Chris and Clair. Steen makes a strong impression from her opening scene in which she gives an increasingly hysterical monologue on her partner’s role in a mysterious war. She winds up – as the audience knows she will – demanding that Clair keep her children quiet. Jenny’s almost violent intrusion into Clair’s home invites both laughter and disbelief and Steen’s carefully measured performance makes the most of a difficult and inconsistent part. Bailey, a recent AC Arts graduate, is also impressive, injecting gusto into a similarly misshapen role. The appearance of the Girl is in some ways The City’s tipping point, the moment at which Crimp begins to unweave the just-recognisable reality he has constructed. Bailey doesn’t appear to have thought about this too much, and this is a good thing; she plays the part for what is there, skilfully avoiding any superfluous gesturing towards the playwright’s intentions.
I was less enamoured with Falkland’s typically arch performance. Her great grasp of technique is as impressive as ever but she never lets an audience see much more, and this always leaves me feeling distinctly disappointed and a little irritated. Pitman is better, certainly more lifelike, though his comically seamless monotonousness, not much changed from his turn in Speaking in Tongues, gets old.
Victoria Lamb’s set – angular and grey, with one great trick up its sleeve – is clever, economical and complementary and the same might be said of Ben Flett’s lighting design and Andrew Howard’s sound. The Bakehouse’s famous black box, usually left undressed by companies too poor or too unimaginative to mollify its crushing void, is quietly but beautifully transformed by these three undoubted talents. The tiny playing space appears both deeper and wider than it can possibly be (I hope designers who may one day find themselves working within the Bakehouse’s walls are taking notes – this is no mean feat).
It’s probably incumbent on me at this point to mention that Geordie Brookman, director of The City, will shortly be replacing Adam Cook as artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia. Brookman directed another of Crimp’s plays, Attempts on Her Life, for the STCSA in 2008 and, whilst his direction of The City is a bit fussy, more focused on the play’s ins and outs than on its more interesting bigger picture, this production is infinitely more successful. It’s probably futile to debate which is the better play (AOHL is not even really a play after all), but I do hope this fact indicates that Brookman has grown as a director, and not that we should be pessimistic about his stewardship of the STCSA.
I, for one, have been buoyed by comments Brookman has made in the Adelaide press about wanting to develop new work by Australian writers (something Cook shamefully neglected in favour of rampant populist namby-pambyism – but I won’t go on about that here). Brookman has also said that he has long-term designs for the STCSA, which will take several years to realise. I’m excited by this too, if only because it suggests Adelaide theatregoers may have something more to look forward to than simply years of Cook-style theatrical mix-tapes (but I won’t go on about that here).