In Polly Stenham’s new play, Robin returns to his crumbling family mansion to look after his mother. Feeling dementia taking hold, she determines to take her own life and has enlisted her son Robin to help her. After her death it seems that she has sold the house and Robin, in denial, embarks on a drug and alcoholic-fuelled bender with a working-class drug dealer (with whom he seems to have a homoerotic relationship) and twins who he befriended at college before dropping out. Their rampage ends tragically when a barn is burned down by fireworks and a 14-year-old girl with a crush on Robin is badly burned. Robin’s brother Oliver, an MP, remonstrates with him, explaining that their father died driving away in a fury after learning that Robin was not his biological son. Oliver admits that he, too, although not the favoured son, misses his mother.
I’ve really given Polly Stenham a fair go. I’ve seen her three Royal Court plays. I’ve persevered, reading them afterwards, wondering if it’s the productions that I don’t like. But basically, I just don’t get it. I don’t even see how other people get it. There are lots of playwrights that, for one reason or another, don’t speak to me. O’Neill is a prime example, but I do kind of see why other people might like them. But with Stenham’s plays, I am baffled by the appeal, which is plainly considerable, the plays transferring to the West End and Broadway, produced all over the world, winning awards, attracting top-drawer casts and stellar reviews. Maybe it’s an age thing; Polly Stenham is famously young and I am not-famously not-young. But that can’t be quite it, because she is championed by a number of middle-aged guys at the Court. So maybe it’s just me.
But it’s not just being left cold by them. I actually don’t like them. It’s not glacial indifference; it’s actual dislike. And here’s why:
I don’t give the slightest tiniest shit about any of the characters. For example, Robin in No Quarter. He seems to me plainly to be a pretentious, pompous, self-regarding, colossal prick. He is apparently a pianist of talent and there is some vague talk that he’s a songwriter, though there was no reason to believe he’s any good since most of the people singing his praises are pretentious, pompous, self-regarding colossal pricks themselves. Robin says really vacuous, obvious things as if they are startling original insights (‘It’s post-post-post-Enlightenment. No one follows anything through. It’s about knowledge, not thought. Knowledge over thought. And that’s fucked up. That’s wrong. Because knowing is not the same as thinking. We compare the two because knowing more immediate value. And we fool ourselves that it is as useful but no one talks ideas anymore. Haven’t you noticed?’ [p. 47]); he does incredibly dumb, stupid, vacuous things and is treated like a hero (Arlo tells a story of him climbing up Tower Bridge and deliberately causing a fireman to be seriously hurt as if this makes him an absolute legend [pp. 61-62]). There is one exception to this, his brother Oliver, who ends the play puncturing some of Robin’s illusions, but more on that below.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe we have to ‘like’ characters in plays. King Lear, Hamlet, Coriolanus, Macbeth, none of them is particularly likeable. It would be odd to watch Look Back in Anger - a play which I thought about several times while watching No Quarter - and simply like Jimmy Porter. But it seems important that in some way we care about a character, care what they do, care what they do to others. We may not like King Lear but we surely care deeply about what happens to him and the choices he makes. The problem here is that none of the characters can be cared about: the twins, Arlo and Scout, are wholly obnoxious. Esme and Coby aren’t on stage long enough to be developed as characters. Lily - kind of the same - and of course bows out 18 pages in. Tommy is perhaps the most likeable but his reasons for being there are so unclear, so confused, that it’s hard to get any emotional purchase on him.
This affective problem becomes a moral problem which becomes an artistic problem. I am watching a play in which the central character behaves like a prick. However, he doesn’t seem to think he is a prick. The other characters don’t seem to think he’s a prick. On the contrary, they think he is an immensely impressive character. Of the eight characters, six appear to be in love with him; seven, if you include Robin himself, which I do. He seems to have limitless powers of persuasion, getting a drug dealer to give him £750 worth of coke on the promise of payment and then dress up in ludicrous fancy dress at the drop of a hat. When this is so widespread, it’s hard not to think that the playwright agrees, which means two things (a) that the playwright seems to think Robin is an admirable character and (b) that she has failed, through her play, to persuade me of it. At one point, Arlo, an insipid posh twat, confronts Tommy, a serious drug dealer. Who do we think would be more intimidated in this situation? Well Polly Stenham thinks it would be Tommy, because Arlo jabs at him with half-witticisms and vague threats and at no point does it occur to Tommy that he could just smack him in the mouth for taking the piss. More formally, then, there seems to be a contradiction in the play between the value of the attitudes expressed by the character and the valuation of those attitudes expressed by the play and for that reason the play is, to me anyway, an artistically incoherent experience.
It’s not just a class issue. It is true that Stenham’s characters are almost all wealthy and privileged. It’s also true that I - and lots of other people - need a bit of persuading that wealthy, privileged people’s problems are massively worth my attention. But, in fact, back to Macbeth, KIng Lear, and Hamlet; I am quite capable of seeing that they are. What is obnoxious in this play is the way that the wealthy, privileged characters are unable to see how wealthy and privileged they are. ‘Leave it, posh boy,’ says Tommy. Robin retorts:
I’m not posh [...] I’m sort of in the cracks. Home-schooled. Well, I sort of taught myself. We didn’t have much money. This place. Ate it all really. First few years of my life we lived in this room, while she rebuilt the place. It was derelict until she. I suppose if I’m anything ... I’m ... I’m ... landed gypsy (p. 46)
This landed gypsy talks posh, lives in a posh house, and has posh attitudes. He is posh but it’s a typical strategy of the rich to pretend that class is a complicated matter that only the stupid or envious would be so crass as to invoke. Later on, Scout, also speaking to Tommy (who seems to be there to embody the crass and stupid attitudes of the working class) scorns him for saying that he’s ‘not one of you’: ‘What do you mean, “one of us”? We’re all people. We’re all humans. We all shit. We all stink’. Tommy comes back at her with the (slightly feeble) line ‘But some of us shit in the woods. If you know what I mean’. Scout’s reply is withering sarcasm: ‘Yes. Because Arlo and I are basically shitting on silken clouds’ (pp. 72-73). It’s another classic response of the wealthy to appeal to humanism when it looks like economic inequality is going to be revealed. It is also strikingly different from Arlo’s remark earlier on:
[Arlo] I know your type. [Robin]’s picked people up like you before. Now fuck off.
Tommy What do you mean, people like me?
Arlo Well. You’re hardly a fucking florist. (pp. 54-55)
We might be inclined to read this as the play exposing the hypocrisy of those characters, but in fact ‘florist’ becomes a running joke and when Tommy challenges Arlo on this Arlo says, in a way that I think is meant to be impressive ‘I LIKE THE WAY IT SOUNDS’ (p. 59). Robin’s apparent contempt for Oliver’s politics (presumed to be Labour) is really just Conservative, made very clear by his joke about the ‘nanny state’ (p. 16), a phrase that betrays an implacably Tory mentality. What is objectionable about these characters is not that they are posh, but that they refuse to accept their privilege and indeed cover it up with abuse, bad arguments, right-wing stupidities, and that the play seems to like them all the more for it.
I LIKE THE WAY IT SOUNDS is maybe a clue to where the values of the play are supposed to reside. Arlo is relishing language, words, the plastic qualities of speech. In a sense, he has an aesthetic attitude to the world, refusing the accept the ‘normal’ utilitarian attitude to things, instead insisting on things like beauty and pleasure. This is certainly Robin’s view of things: when Oliver criticises Robin for abandoning ‘fundamental fucking value’ and deciding to ‘lock yourself away in a house you did not work for and play the fucking piano’, Robin’s reply is ‘MUSIC IS MY VALUE’ (p. 96). And he associates this attitude with his mother too (‘Sound means something to me. Like language did to Lily’ [p. 96]). The bohemian trio of Robin, Arlo and Scout, with Lily as a divine parent, represent a kind of bohemian refusal of engagement, an aspiration to a higher beauty as a source of meaning and value.
There are two problems with this for me. For one thing, there’s no evidence whatever that these people have any talent or taste. We hear Robin play piano once, but he’s hardly Vladimir Horowitz. We don’t hear any of his songs (unless the sub-Chase & Status dubstep that accompanies the final party is meant to be one of his compositions). At one point Esme refers to Arlo and Scout as ‘talented’ (p. 80), which was a surprise to me since they show no sign of it at any point. So it’s hard to know whether these characters are sensitive and artistic individuals or pretentious pricks and, in the absence of anything decisive on the former side, I’d say the evidence is strongly for the latter.
The second problem is that the play itself offers a number of examples of an intense self-consciousness about language that look as though they are meant to be sensitive but just sound like a playwright getting distracted by their own words. There’s a little riff on whether you could go to a fag-tasting in the way that you can go to a wine-tasting (pp. 20-21) that just looks like a writer word-associating and forgetting about character. There’s a very clumsy riff on ‘renege’ and ‘renegade’ which has been tidied in performance and makes no sense at all on the page (p. 43). ‘Never be daunted,’ says Robin at one point, before the musing sedentary writer takes over: ‘Didn’t Hemingway say that? [...] Although he did shoot himself in the face. Is that being daunted? Or the opposite? I wonder...’ (p. 50). Robin, in a passage that one could with considerable understatement call self-dramatising, warns that he can’t express how he really feels because ‘There isn’t a word [...] If there was a word. And there isn’t. It would be a word so ... terrible. A word so ... frightening. That it would have to be kept in a box. And never taken out. It would be a word so ... dangerous. That your mouth would break as you tried to make the sound’ (p. 70). All of these moments seem evidence not of a finely sensitive engagement with the beauty and terror of the world, but verbal infelicity in search of emotional banality.
And finally it’s the emotional banality of the plays that kills them for me. I do believe the wealthy can suffer. I do think that in all families, rich and poor, that are seams of deep pain that the theatre can explore and express and embody and struggle painfully with. But what is the suffering here? Robin’s dad died in a car crash when he was young? Well bad stuff happens. People didn’t like him at college? Well, no shit Sherlock; that tends to happen when you behave like a colossal prick. I imagine it would be devastating to have your mother develop Alzheimer’s and ask you to help her take her own life, but actually Robin seems more upset that the house is going to be sold. But even if he did express appropriate, sensitive feelings about the right things, the play wouldn’t work. The problem is that everything is, as playwrights sometimes say, ‘on the nose’. That is, characters just tell you what they are feeling. There’s almost no opportunity to infer what they are feeling, to guess that they may not be telling the truth, to engage in a dance of feeling with the characters, burrowing into their feelings. We are just presented with everything on a plate. It’s hard not to think that the characters and probably their author think that expressing your pain is itself valuable and important. The only character who seriously criticises Robin and who lands any kind of punch is his brother, Oliver. But right at the very end of the play, we realise that he has been trying to puncture Robin’s pomposity so that he himself can talk about his pain. Having cleared a bit of space by taking Robin down a peg or two, we get a long-ish speech in which he talks about their mother’s dementia, concentrating on the really important thing: his own feelings.
This play overlapped in the Royal Court Theatre for just over a week with Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness. The second act of Crimp’s play, with acerbic hilarity, shows the ensemble talking about their suffering and pain, insisting meaninglessly on asserting the importance of narrating your problems as an end in itself. That means, between 11 and 19 January, we had the unusual experience of the Royal Court Downstairs more or less directly satirising the values of the play at the Royal Court Upstairs.
I would love to ‘get it’. I’d love the penny to drop. I’d like to see what everyone else sees. But for the moment, I’m afraid, I was with Oliver when, after an hour and three-quarters he exclaimed: ‘I am sick of this pseudo-punk bohemian bullshit’ (p. 96). Amen.