Monday, 13 March 2017

Review a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (noun)


a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (noun)
By debbie tucker green

Back To Basics
https://royalcourttheatre.com/

Three couples inhabit the universe of this 80-minute play, but five people - or is it five proper nouns? For the title of this cryptic play comes from a dictionary definition, apparently, of that otherwise undefinable thing called Love.

We have to admit when we first saw the title we thought of that other treatise on Love - yes, the one where the granddaughter of a Nobel prizewinning physicist wanders around in a nightdress hopelessly devoted to a summer lover.

It turned out we were not so very wrong as all the couples in debbie tucker green's ping pong match of a play wander around in their jim jams and dressing gowns and express the kind of brooding thoughts which may occur in the wee small hours.

The stage and set designed by Merle Hensel in the upstairs theatre of the Royal Court are a turquoise green ledge, wall and floor raised around three sides.

The audience perches on black swivel bar stools divided into regimented lengthways rows inside, allowing a swivelling round as the voices, action (movement director Vicki Manderson), lighting (Lee Curran) and sound (Christopher Shutt) demand.

This has the effect of training the audience to physically follow the action and each other like a shoal of fish. We'd already been instructed to leave our bags in the cloakroom and enter with the bare minimum.

Directed by the playwright, the men and women also have the bare minimum in terms of their monikers: A (Lashana Lynch), B .(Gershyn Eustache Jnr), Man (Gary Beadle). Woman (Meera Syal) and Young Woman (Shvorne Marks).

Drama, the text books often say, is conflict. We're certainly pitched in to a clash between A and B where the words do the grating, while the drawing of chalk lines from what seems to be two overlapping venn diagram circles is silent.

The play itself is a series of stripped-down gendered duologues with only the briefest moments of pleasure for the couples stemming from a baby, a mutuality and a kiss. We don't know anything about their lives except for these private twilight interchanges about their relationships. 

Except watch out, the male and female attributes swap with the second couple and there's a definite feel as the play progresses that we may be within a computer program or chat bot or a space where biology and software crosses over.

There's a lyrical, rhythmic, soundtrack quality to the dialogue, sometimes with a razor's jagged edge and an underlying sense of menace about the changes afoot. There are enough hints to suggest a subtext of an automated future patterned, for good or ill, on male programming - the subject of one of the best but also ominously unfair jibes against the sour, sarcastic drained Woman.

Does the definition of love in the play's title actually exist, we wondered? Is love always about "someone"? We weren't sure. It's the individual voices that came through strongest with the Young Woman moulded by the older lives but with a resigned but quietly angry sense of a poisoned legacy which she cannot yet fully analyse.

We're speaking in general terms because, despite the precision of the acting and sharp corners of the platform ledges and the words, it is a play that rarely names specifics. The playwright does specify in the published script that the characters are black or Asian. Yet the  visuals otherwise indeed sometimes distracted from our concentration on the elastic snap of the dialogue and occasionally we turned our head and eyes, just to listen.

So when the few human spikes of recognition came, they dug deep but we also felt manipulated. It's a play that invites some satisfying taut resistance as the words bounce hard against the walls of the room. It's also secretive and frustrating.

We don't doubt there is the sharp jab of visceral prodding and the configuration of language feels both literary and computerised. But we also felt conditioned into responding and it's an amber light for a disembodied, fascinating and flawed play dictating and yet wistfully cajoling us into obeying its terms and conditions.

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