The Low Road

The Low Road is Bruce Norris's third play at the Court and this together with The Pain and the Itch (2008) have bookended Dominic Cooke's reign at the Court. Cooke began with an avowed intention to critically represent the middle class to itself and The Pain and the Itch was one of the most successful examples of that, in its skewering of middle-class identity politics and what we wrongly call #firstworldproblems. Clybourne Park, a kind of sequel to A Raisin in the Sun, tried to peel the scab off white middle-class anxieties about race. This new play is an attempt to get up in the face of capitalism, the free market and the global recession.

The play is mostly set in the late eighteenth century, and follows the life and career of foundling Jim Trumpett who, chancing upon a manuscript page of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (the passage about the "invisible hand"), becomes a devotee of the free market; he begins by transforming the finances of the brothel in which he grows up (largely to his own advantage), then goes off to become a gentleman, buying a suit of clothes and a slave, getting himself robbed, then rescued by a quaker community (pictured), whom he offends; he is almost executed by Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British during the American Revolutionary War. Instead he is taken on by a wealthy landowner and organises his accounts - disastrously as it turns out (and again to his own advantage). He is about to be executed when the judge is recognised as a former habitué of the brothel and he is released and then immediately murdered by an unknown assailant. His line lives on because he raped the daughter of the Quaker preacher. Jim's slave, Mr Blanke, is visited by aliens who explain that humanity's competitive instincts will lead to their destruction after which the aliens will invade unopposed.

As that summary suggests, this is a sprawling mess of a play. It is picaresque, for sure, and reminds me of Candide in its meandering satirical philosophical quest. This doesn't quite work in its meandering because there seems no logic, consistency, or sense of design through the piece. Notably, there's a rather obvious interlude set at a contemporary G8-type conference, which has some good jokes but seems to be there to explain to the stupidest members of the audience that this history play is about now. The other problem is that it adds to the high number of rather sedentary scenes in which people debate economics - the Quaker scene, the G8 scene, the dinner scene - they all look the same and feel the same. In other words, it's not picaresque enough, because we always seem to come back to the same theatrical home.

The challenge of writing a picaresque story is how you make it a satisfying whole and I didn't feel this play worked. There are some motifs that run through it which might unify it; in particular there's an image of bees that continually recur (and a monified bee is  the poster image). It's never quite explained what the value of this image was. It resonated in two ways for me; I was reminded of Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees (1729), a satirical poem which has been widely cited in support of the idea that selfish behaviour, in a free market, produces the optimal general good. The other is that bees seem to be dying out, perhaps because of the spread of insecticides, industrialised farming, global warming or some combination of the three. This last thought resonates with the dread predictions of the aliens but really this and images like it are not sufficient to make it work.

Oh yes, the aliens. It really felt to me like Bruce Norris was struggling to end this play. The second half seems to get out of his control and we have some rather lumpy discussions of the value of theatre, a (repetitive) story about Trumpett's corruption and incompetence, his mysterious death and then the aliens. It doesn't land; it doesn't satisfy. Rather like Anders Lustgarten's play, I agree with the argument it appears to be making, but I don't think poor playmaking can be excused by having a good heart or the right ideas.

Wonderful cast, weird sub-Brechtian production, including the parading a signs telling us when and where we are (which, for some reason, got laughs from an easily-pleased Royal Court audience). It felt like an indulgence really.