The Bourgeois and The Beautiful [by Jess Holly Bates]
It’s the middle-class girl in me that loves the set of this play the moment I sit down: the blonde wood of the stage boards, the stark clarity of three white doors, and the the central divan, draped with shagpile. Everything is like the display bedroom in a linen store, down to the boutique chocolates at the foot of the bed. We are bathed in a soft peachy glow, which not only makes one feel a little drunk at the sight of other people’s faces, but it’s also jolly helpful if you are the kind of bourgeois bastard who likes to write in your moleskin during the show. For once, I can actually see my notes.
Tonight, I am seeing Loving Kurt Vonnegut, a fresh work from writer Gary Stalker, and directed by acting heavyweight Paul Gittens. This is the kind of play made for people like me: English grads with a taste for clean design principles. First of all – I loved Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, and second, I’m a sucker for Christine Urquhart’s in-the-round staging and modernist eye. I am not disappointed – this turns out to be one ‘beautiful’ drama. Our well-to-do literary couple, the famous Colin Freeman, and his beautiful young muse, the sparkling Alice, seek to escape the ennui of their creative drought. In their will to bring interesting narrative to life, the unwitting Casey is lured from the bar downstairs into their home. From this unlikely menage trios, they will engineer a story to inspire the tale for their next novel. And so the games begin.
Like any play so bald about its own construction, this is a text riddled with references to the art of making – of writing, of acting, of fabricating story from events. It takes articulate acting to allow the audience in to the nature of every secret, to follow the web of ulterior motives and “plasticated” realities. At times these intricacies crystallise beautifully, at others, intentions become a little muddy under layers of sport.
Throughout, David Aston provides a beautiful, settled portrait of Colin Freeman. He is droll and grounded, carving up space in his (immaculate) underpants, a whiskey in one hand. Facing death, Colin is both a realist sage, and a clown, giving gorgeous deflation to the effervescent and whimsical Alice (Anthea Hill). As Colin points out, “[he] is the guy, [he] is the cheese,” and this is no lie – the experience of Aston on the boards is a delight to watch. The self-aware voice of the writer is heard most clearly in Aston’s character, as he references the indulgence of the performative act, and that intolerable quality in a person who ‘reads aloud’ to another.
All the performances hold strong ground – Damien Avery has a charming vulnerability, while Anthea Hill is striking as the fiercely intelligent femme fatale. Anthea’s classical poise has always had the remarkable ability to make one feel as if they are time-travelling while watching her, but this time it proved difficult to know in which period Gittens had set the text. In her button-up and long woollen skirt, I began to wonder if this was Alice fashioning herself as some kind of mythical creature from the classics. And it is true, such people exist – I remember many such types floating about the English department at University. But when the gun emerged, and it turns out to be a beautiful old pistol, I felt the degree of nostalgia had reached its maximum saturation point, and was unable to recover from the idea that we were watching simply an exercise in aesthetics.
That said, perhaps it is important to be alienated by this world, peppered with excerpts of Coltraine, fine single-malts, sardonic asides and impeccable taste in chocolate. There is a whiff of ex-pat life on this stage, an idea confirmed by the fact that Colin and Alice have the charm, wit and English accents to make Casey look like the culturally illiterate bumpkin from the bottom of the world.
Ultimately, ‘playing’ is the real matter being called into question, albeit a little obtusely stated. Over and over, they accuse one another of “playing a part”, being insincere, or it all “being a game”. While this felt a little heavy-handed, the play was littered with biting and wordy duels, and it was satisfying to see cogent debate sparkle on the stage, even if it was a brand of literary porn enjoyed by the precious few.
True magic emerges in moments where the witty repartee is left aside for a charged stillness, booming gunshots or wild physicalisations that turn the stage upside down. At one point, Casey becomes the “fucking silverback” that Colin desired him to be, so committed to his apish display that the man in front of me got whiskey on his shoes. These moments stand out because they are the least pre-meditated, and in loving them, I realise I have walked into the writers’ clever trap. Of course, Stalker knows that good stories are made when something is risked. When my eardrums vibrate with gunfire; when a bout of epilepsy happens in a living room. These moments are what shake the characters from their condition of dry commentary on narrative process. Similarly, this is when the audience forgets they are watching theatre, because these are moments of “living [story]” not “wanting or wishing” it. And this is Stalker’s genius, the thwart to that reflective impulse of which he, his characters (and we) are so fond.
Can we walk away from this play, and say something happened, in real time, with a manner of meaning to someone? I think so. Whilst for me, it was not the parting image of a weeping widow at the side of a wheelchair, there is certainly something stark and human beneath the layers of self-reflexive exposition here. For those with a taste for creative navel-gazing, it will certainly serve, but with its excellent performance work, this play will satisfy theatre-junkies the city over.
Loving Kurt Vonnegut is presented by Deep Field and plays at The Basement until 29 August. Details see The Basement.