In the early summer of 1968, Paul McCartney read an interview with Pete Townsend in Guitar Player magazine from the previous year, in which Pete talks about The Who's then-recent recording of 'I Can See For Miles', describing it as totally wild, abandoned, dirty, and raw. The legend is that Paul was very excited by the description and got hold of the single - and that he was very disappointed by what he heard. 'I Can See For Miles' is a terrific song but it isn't that wild, not that dirty and raw. And, still buzzing from the idea of a piece of music that he had imagined, he went into the studio and recorded 'Helter Skelter', which isn't the wildest, most abandoned, dirty and raw song ever, but it's on the way there, and has a claim to inventing heavy metal.
I thought of this watching Pomona, because I can't tell you how many times I've been told about an amazing new play that's wild and abandoned and breaks all the rules and is totally contemporary and thrilling and instead I've just ended up seeing more of the same. But at the Orange Tree, Pomona is it; this is the real deal. This is a play that could change how we write plays. It's a play that could change our theatre. I've seen a few theatre shows that have passed into theatre history: The Oresteia at the National in 1981, The Mahabharata at the Tramway in 1988, Blasted at the Theatre Upstairs in 1995, Jerusalem at the Royal Court in 2009. I'd add Pomona to that list. It's the most exciting new play I've seen in years. It's a play that could change how we see and understand our world.
So, describe Pomona then. Well that's already tough. I'd say that a woman goes missing.in Manchester and her identical twin tries to enlist help to find her. I think the missing woman has problems with drugs and debts and becomes a prostitute and then falls in with a gang who get her to film violent porn movies. I think she then disappears one day and her friend in the brothel discovers that their boss has their blood-type information on her computer. I think their boss then enlists two security guards to kill the friend, perhaps acting on the authority of The Girl, a mythical unnamed figure who controls everything and I mean everything. I think the guards kidnap the friend but bungle it and are forced to fake a violent attack. I think that inadvertently one of the guards dies from the wounds administered in the fake attack. I think the sister looking for her twin eventually stumbles upon an underground hospital where the disappeared are being kept, their organs harvested, their bodies used as baby farms. I think the twin escapes but her sister does not. However, some or all of this might just be events taking place in a RPG, dungeon-mastered by Charlie. It could be a dream or a nightmare or a fiction or it might all be real. I'll be honest, I spent some of the performance confused, much of it uneasy, moments of it actually frightened, but at no point did I doubt that what I was watching was somehow necessary, urgent, inevitable, and about us now. Moe, one of the guards, announces 'It's all real. / All of it. / Everything bad is real' (p. 101).
Real is an interesting word to talk about in relation to this play. It's clearly not 'realism': it has a kind of urban gothic quality that pushes beyond realism into something darkly stylised. There are scenes that clearly aren't real: near the end, Charlie (the other Guard) meets Zeppo, a man who owns much of the city, but who is now a seagull. Earlier Charlie has persuaded Keaton to play an RPG entering on a cult that hope to revive the terrible sleeping God Chthulu, who is a figure from the works of H P Lovecraft, so obviously not real, though we have met Chthulu in the first scene, sitting with Zeppo and Ollie, obsessively throwing dice (or, in the text, solving Rubik's Cubes). So is Chthulu real? Or is the first scene a fantasy? Or does the whole play take place in a liminal zone - like the abandoned urban zone of Pomona - neither living nor dead, both real and imaginary?
And what's more the rather linear account of the plot that I offer above is no respecter of the play's riddling structure which jumps back and forth in time, requiring that we mentally reorder the play in our heads. But this isn't always possible to do: where does Charlie's RPG fit in the structure? It's very hard to say. The chronological disordering has troubling and unsettling effects on our ability to understand who is who, particularly the twin sisters. Although the text tells us who is which sister in each scene, on stage this is hard to work out. In the final scene, the captured twin has escaped from hospital, but things are so murky at this point that it could equally be the searching twin who has decided to swap her life with her twin. Zeppo's reality is very questionable - as I've already mentioned, he shares a life with Chthulu and turns into a seagull, and then there's the matter of his name. Zeppo and Keaton suggest Marx and Buster, a figures from another clownishly existential world. Who is Keaton? Is she the Girl referred to at various times? Scene fifteen seems to say so; scene eight says not. The play does not know and instead offers character as ghost, slippage, people appearing and disappearing all over the city; in one stunning sequence in this production, the twins appear and reappear in jump cuts across the stage. It's thrilling and terrifying.
But realism still. This isn't just fantasy. There's a patterning of motifs and events and concerns and attitudes that play out across the surface of the play that suggests our own culture, in our own time: drugs, faddish religions, faceless corporations, pervasive capitalism, school shootings, pornography, prostitution, gaming and body horror. In its skewed and nightmarish way this is a vision of us now. The great and exciting thing about a play like this is the way that it reorders your mind; it gathers together other manifestations in our wider culture and retrospectively makes sense of them. I thought of Dennis Kelly's Utopia in this, with its mixture of brutality, dystopia, cartoon imagery, mysticism. I thought of the mixture of gritty realism and sheer surrealism in Three Kingdoms. I think of the way Philip Ridley's plays have been mixing dreams, realism and comic-book violence for 25 years.
I thought particularly of the strain of apocalyptic political interventions in the theatre this year: Alice Birch's Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again and Rory Mullarkey's Wolf from the Door both of which suggest a furious, nihilistic disgust at the world and apparently offers utter destruction and rebirth as an answer. Here the play is filled with images of horrified nihilism, the possibilities of moral redemption virtually non-existent. Moe denounces a world in which a man like him can walk around. Ollie, the missing twin, tells her friend Fay:
I think I hate everyone
It's like a sickness I can feel in my guts.
I wake up every morning and I feel it all over.
I can't get to sleep because it turns in me,
All this hate.
I think I'd sleep a lot easier if I knew none of us would wake up tomorrow.
Do you feel that?
. . .
One day I'll come back to this city on fire.
I'll have flames pouring from me.
And I'll keep walking through the streets in circles until everyone and everything is just ash.
I'll bring the end to everyone. (p. 62).
Is this a good thing? I can imagine perfectly reasonable critics objecting to this: isn't this a kind of rejection of politics as a process of change? Isn't this an embrace of a murderous anti-humanist darkness? Are these plays not capitulating to the very horrors that they are representing? I don't think so. First, because all of these plays retain a warmth and humanity in the wit and empathy of the writing (and, in production, in the performance). Second, because plays do not have to set out a detailed political manifesto: these plays are expressing a scream of rage at the totality of our corrupt politics. They express - violently, desperately, shockingly - an outside to our current contingent politics; they force us to imagine a sheer other to the world we live in; they express the genuine contempt that so many of us have for a world that seems to value money more than people. The images of destruction are a gesture of determination to hold open the imagination, at any cost; they mark an extreme limit, to hold that limit there, to insist that things can be different. In their very different way they are like that cry from Howard Brenton's The Churchill Play, 'don't let the future be like this' (p. 108). But these writers, and this play, are saying, 'don't let now be like this'.
I hear in Moe's 'everything bad is real' a - surely unintended - echo of Hegel's 'everything that is rational is real'. Hegel is writing with the nineteenth century's huge confidence in the perfectibility of the world. Is Moe falling into irrationalist postmodern despair? I don't think so. I think this play is political, because it thinks the world is perfectible but is everywhere viciously imperfect.
Because, for all its madness, this is a crystal clear picture of what is wrong with our world. Pomona, the place, is described more than once as 'a hole in the middle of the city' (pp. 19, 44). Zeppo thinks it's what the world will be like in a few thousand years (p. 19), but I don't think the play reckons we'll have to wait that long. The city itself is empty and desolate, as if Pomona is a hole in the middle of a hole: Charlie's RPG begins in the middle of a crowded city but 'People push past you as if you're not there. It's a cold and lonely city, and you're not here by choice' (p. 42). More than one character admits to having no friends. Moe's violent streak means that he dare not touch anyone, which seems to grow into a general image of atomisation: 'I feel very disconnected,' he confesses (p. 89). But he has violent tendencies, he admits; his touch is murderous. The vision of the world is brutal: 'The whole world hates women,' says Fay. 'Maybe. Not me,' retorts Moe though he will eventually kidnap her to kill her (p. 91). The world is just 'a cycle of shit,' says Moe, 'A drowning in oceans of piss' (p. 102). At the end, Seagull-Zeppo announces his plan to shit on the entire world, to cover everything in his own faeces. Charlie's more benignly intended but still grotesque desire is to cover everything in the world with a thin layer of his own 'jizz' . He insists: 'not in a sexy way. It wouldn't be sexy' (p. 48), suggesting that a cultural imagination where extreme pornography has become normalised, almost desexualised. His belief that somehow, in doing so, he would be healing the world, spreading out his 'lifeforce' (p. 49), shows how misshapen an ordinary spirit of altruism has become. This is benevolence as bukkake.
We shift between layers throughout; from dream to nightmare, from memory to imagination, from reality to fantasy. It's extremely skilful and very precise. The writing is also extremely funny. The confidence of Alistair McDowall's writing here is remarkable. And the production - yes, sorry, I've left the production till last and will probably say far too little about it. Ned Bennett has found a shape for the show that maps hauntingly over the play and brings it to ghostly half-life. The jaw-dropping moment where Ollie appears in jump cuts across the stage is as genuinely unsettling as anything I've seen in the theatre - it reshapes the dimensions of the theatre somehow (and Elliott Griggs' lighting is key to this). Georgia Lowe's set sinks a square trough into the Orange Tree stage, adverting to the underground world of the play but also the sense of a drained, exhausted and derelict world. The performers run at the play with conviction and precision and attack: there's not a weak link here.
The play is disorientating, purposefully. The production is too. The ghosts of characters that layer over each other are also felt in the uncanny layering of imagined inner-city Manchester on the leafy suburbia of Richmond. It's been widely reported that there have been walk-outs, letters of denunciation, and protests by some of the Orange Tree's regular and conventional audience. Well, shame on them. They are privileged to have this stunning vision of our world premiering at their theatre. Fortunately, the new Orange Tree is trying to build another audience. Tickets for the under-30s are £10. Please support this production. It's nearly finished its run. You only have one more week to see the play of the decade,