I love this
show. I saw it in 2006 at the National and loved it every bit as much
yesterday. It’s an impro show where they bring on a guest - sometimes
arranged by the theatre, sometimes from the audience - interview them
about their life and act out key moments from that life in a variety of
What’s staggering about the show is the
ethical weight of it. Oh and it’s very funny but the ethical weight of
it seems to me something about the respect and generosity and attention
paid to a life; finding the turning points, the laughter, the absurdity
all seems to be a remarkably holistic way of understanding the weight of
being a person and the responsibility of living a life. The team of
improvisers are very funny, but also full of insight; they never mock -
they find the humour and keep respectful without being pious.
This does seem to me to have an ethical
value. Philosophically, debates in ethics tend to begin with a debate
between deontologists (like Kant, who believe that the ethical value of
an action lies in the principles behind the action) and
consequentialists (like Bentham or Mill, who believe that you judge its
value from its consequences).
The new kid on the block is actually the
old kid on the block - virtue ethics - which thinks both these views
are partial because they deal too precisely with particular actions.
They say, look, who thinks like that? Who feels a satisfying,
responsible ethical life is to follow a narrow set of principles or to
calculate outcomes. Isn’t the life well lived one that embraces the
whole person? And if that’s right, we should pay attention not to a
narrow sense of a person’s ‘moral actions’ but the full range of their
activities and feelings, their personality and projects.
Now, as it happens, I think some of this
is rather vacuous when it comes down to it and rather conservative. (We
don’t have to work out what a good person is, we all know who they are,
say the Virtue Ethicists: Nelson Mandela, perhaps some sporting hero, a
brave and principled leader, someone witty and graceful and thoughtful
like Stephen Fry... but all this does is deliver us the status quo and
tell us that we will find ‘the good life’ in it. In comparison, Mill and
Kant are revolutionaries.) However, it does ask good questions about
the other two theories and has encouraged people, for example, to look
at the later Metaphysics of Morals in Kant’s work - and not just the earlier Groundwork or Critique of Practical Reason,
which might be seen as somewhat more drily ‘legislative’ in their
articulation of moral duties. It suggests, I think rightly, that ethics
is a field that should embrace not just lies, murder and betrayal, but
laughter, friendship, fine wine and great art.
Lifegame fits into this picture by
providing a rounded sense of the whole person. The theatre shows us much
more than simply the principles on which people act and the statements
they make; we see the way they look at each other, the way they hold
their bodies, the grace and confidence of their movements, the comfort
they feel in their own skin, the profound ambivalence we can have for
each other and the inexpressible bonds that connect us all. It’s
impossible to miss the feeling of seriousness and weight underneath the
Last night’s guest was Kerry Shale, the
actor. He recalled that he was never encouraged to be an actor and that
he great-uncle George (IIRC) had been a bit-part actor in Hollywood and a
figure of some criticism in his family. In his early twenties, Kerry
had somewhat dropped out and was working as a parking lot attendant when
he made the decision to defy his parents and try to become an actor.
Phelim McDermott asked to see this scene, but he asked to see it as the
ghost of Uncle George visiting the young stoner Kerry in his booth. The
twist was that he asked Kerry Shale to play George.
It was an exquisitely funny scene. Kerry
played his uncle, quite inaccurately he said, with a New York Jewish
accent and an improvised mask, prepared by Julian Crouch. Lee Simpson
played the young Kerry, who asked ‘Are you really there or is this
because of [gestured at the spliff]?’ ‘Does it really matter?’ asked
George spreading his arms. But at one moment, ‘George’ asked ‘Kerry’ who
he really was, and after some hesitation, Kerry replied, ‘an actor’.
‘Don’t apologise,’ said his Uncle. ‘An actor,’ he repeated, more firmly
now. ‘Louder,’ said George. ‘I’m an actor,’ he answered. The audience
was both laughing and hushed somehow. We were watching a man revisiting a
key moment in his life, both wanting to affirm the path he’d taken but
also impatient with his young fecklessness and somehow feeling, I
thought, that even now, he might take a different turn.
Dramaturgically, the team are wonderful
at creating a satisfying shape to the evening. It’s an obvious shape, to
be fair - laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, moving - and
it’s the advice I give people to do wedding speeches - but their
ability to weave it together with textures of callback and creativity,
through the variety of dramatic means and structures through which the
scenes are developed make this a very rich and powerful evening.
And funny. Don’t forget, it’s very, very funny.