Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Jonjo O'Neill in Chris Thorpe's Victory Condition (Royal Court, 2017). Photo: Helen Murray. Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton in David Eldridge's Beginning (National Theatre: Dorfman, 2017). Photo: Johan Persson.
In one of those interesting coincidence that are probably not coincidences, perhaps the two best plays running in London at the moment are both one-act two-handers unfolding in real time, set in open-plan one-bedroom middle-class apartments. In both plays, the action we watch is of two people in moments of domestic intimacy in the kitchen/living area, cooking, eating, being together.
The two plays are Victory Condition by Chris Thorpe and Beginning by David Eldridge and in every other single respect the plays could not be more different. Probably.
Beginning is, on one level, easier to describe. SPOILERS: A house party has just finished and the penultimate guest has jumped in a taxi, leaving Laura and Danny alone. Laura fancies Danny and says so. Danny fancies Laura and says so, but there is awkwardness between the two. Laura has a certain urgent honesty about her desire for sex. Danny is convulsed by his feelings of low esteem, in part derived from the failure of his first marriage. They drink, they dance, the tidy up, they make sandwiches. We realise they both want, more than anything, love and companionship and to trust again and not to be alone. They decide to go for it.
Victory Condition is quite different. SPOILERS: If you watched but did not listen you would see a youngish couple come back from a weekend away, unpack a bit, wash, open their post, order a take away meal, have an evening moseying around together and a bit apart. This play is of perfect domestic banality. But if you listen, there's quite another play happening. The story he is telling is that he is a sniper in a country torn apart by civil war. He is waiting in a vantage point above a square, watching his victim. We hear a little about his views of the world and the process he went through to become the man he is. And he ends by squeezing the trigger. Her story is more abstract: she is a professional woman who seems to have had some kind of seizure in which the world has frozen in time and she seems to see everything at once. It may be that she is having a brain haemorrhage or it may be that she is receiving signals from someone in terrible danger on the other side of the world. It is unclear or undecided. At the very end, they look at each other and exchange a couple of words.
So the theatrical styles are different. The ways they appeal to an audience are very different. The tones are very different. The references out are very different. The language use is very different. And I'll get to that, but I want to stay with the similarities for the moment. These writers have both set their plays in absolutely minutely observed contemporary places. Thorpe's flat has a recognisably anonymous urban sheen. Very little personalises the space. This couple could be renting. The only things that personalise the flat are generic: the books on the shelf, the same ones everyone else is reading, the groceries in the cupboard, the same brands everyone else gets, the computer game that arrived from Amazon, the same one we're all playing. The director, Vicky Featherstone, and designer Chloe Lamford, have created a pin-perfect world in its frictionless surfaces and unremarkable behaviours. It's a joy to watch everything so right, so recognisable, and, then of course, so strange.
Eldridge's play is similarly precise: it's the aftermath of a party that has only just not got out of hand. Someone burned a hole in the carpet; someone was sick on the bed; the place looks like a bomb's hit it. More broadly, it's a fairly large Victorian house that was probably turned into flats in the 1980s with an internal wall knocked down to create a convivial flow between the kitchen and living room. It is nice and big, so it's got that going for it, but the decor has not been changed for forty years. Laura can only afford it because she cannily bought her first place eighteen years ago and was carried upwards on the insane and grotesque London property-price elevator to the point that, despite being single, she can afford a sizeable one-bedroom flat in Crouch End. Fly Davis's design enhances these clues brilliantly. Apart from bottles and cans and glasses, she's also surrounded by housewarming gifts, mostly from John Lewis's own range, so... nice and middle class but on the cheaper end. On the way in front of us there is an area where tester pots of paint have been tried out on the wall, a visual reminder of Laura's small, indecisive reinventions of self.
Both plays investigate what the lives are that we live in precisely those places. In Beginning, what we are looking at is the meagre successes of a life that promised so much. I'm a bit older than the characters in Eldridge's play. Full disclosure: I pretty much did what Laura did and managed to buy a flat in the late 1990s, just before they all went batshit crazy. The generation below me (and Laura and Danny), basically my students for the past decade, have much less chance of buying a home within the London Congestion Zone like I did. I couldn't afford to buy one now. And this ripples out to all of the futures we were promised. For so many people, there's a sense that, even if you wanted to do something different, there was always the possibility that at some point you'd get a good stable job, get married, have a family, buy a big house and live in relative comfort for the rest of your life. I know that's not everyone's dream. I know that many people know early on that's out of reach. But the idea that was even a default position for the middle class seems to have evaporated. In fact, this promise was always a hollow one, because what if things don't go right? What if you just don't find the right person? What if you miss your opportunities? As you approach middle age, the thought can come more and more strongly: is this it? Is this what I have to put up with? Is this all I'll ever be? And the loneliness and the need for someone to curl up against, someone to take you for granted and someone to take for granted, someone who will love you and believe in you and support you and for whom you'll do all those things, and the idea that you'll have a home you can settle into and paint the way you want and make bad decisions about in IKEA and keep changing your mind about the right place to put your CDs and all that marvellous stupidity, all that seems like a humiliating dream.
And this is what this marvellous, funny, deeply moving, entirely enjoyable, painful and beautiful play seems to me about. It's a play about two people who find the seriousness of heart to brave another possible slice of humiliation, to work through the crushing awkwardness of a first kiss indoor late 30s, who accept that, in the words of Glen Campbell's greatest song, I need you more than want you - because life can sometimes be just so painful, so very painful without someone to love and who loves you. Polly Findlay has gently shepherded two quietly spectacular performances from Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton; there's a sequence where they dance-together-but-not-together that is brilliantly detailed, fascinating to watch, funny as fuck, and heartbreaking. Beginning is a hymn of beautiful praise for people who manage to get through that pain and the fear that it will all go wrong and that they will be rejected again and manage to just say yes, yes okay.
Victory Condition presents us with a different kind of pain. Thematically, both characters, in the monologues they tell us, are telling us of worlds of pain. She, with the awful perspective afforded her by this pause on time to which she has been treated, glimpses endless suffering or herself and others, people tormented by pain, people anticipating suffering, people reduced to the depths. He is going to inflict terrible suffering on the young woman (barely more than a girl) that he will kill and then on her comrades and friends. He has inflicted terrible suffering on himself. An evocative story tells us of his experience placing his hand one day in icy water and leaving there until, when he takes it out, he can't feel it any more. It's a story about how he has hardened his heart, really, and perhaps how he has become another person who kills people with a high-velocity sniper rifle. This chimes, of course, with the disjunction we're watching, because indeed this mild-mannered middle-class man, pottering about his small flat seems a very different person from this professional killer. And this is the other pain of the show; the play forces apart the text and image, the verbal and the visual, and also the two characters from each other. There are only a couple of tiny clues that connect the two spoken monologues and mostly they are stories that pass each other by. Her world, like she's just woken up in The Matrix, seems almost to be in another universe to his. This play is painfully disassembled. The shards of it are sharp, so putting it together won't be easy.
I would say the work of the audience in this play is precisely to put it all together, the two stories and their relation to the world we are watching. Interestingly, the text of the play has a much longer section at the end where the couple seem to reflect on the very fact of watching this play. It's a moment that feels like it tries to bring the fragments together (like the first scene of Crimp's Attempts on Her Life, which now the author says you can actually cut and let the fragments scatter). This has been cut down in this production to a simple exchange, which, for now at least, I think is a good idea (I can imagine making that last section work though, in a different kind of production). Like the way we try to piece together the two halves of Blasted, or the three scenes of Far Away or the setting and the events of Stoning Mary or what we see and what we understand to be happening in My Arm, this play needs us to try to mend what is broken.
There are many ways of drawing these fragments together. I felt sometimes as if we were simply being asked to reflect that our relatively privileged lives are carrying on while elsewhere in the world there is awful suffering. (At one moment the woman imagines what it the apocalypse would be like: we wouldn't run screaming as in a disaster movie; we'd probably just be getting on with our lives - you will substitute ingredients and talk quietly over dinner - and perhaps that's what we're watching.) At other times I was reminded that, as in Dubrovnik or Damascus - or, dear God, maybe even Barcelona - we can pass from comfort to barbarism in a matter of months and with little warning. And at still other times, I wondered if we were being invited to think that our life rests upon the structural suffering of others. Chloe Lamford's set floats the apartment in the centre of the Court's oddly vertical stage and surrounds it with an effortful structure of scaffolding. You can almost see the strain it takes to create the bubble of casual, thoughtless domestic comfort. Certainly, it's a vision of an atomised little cell in which our lives are lived. Meanwhile the stories we are hearing are telling us, despite all the horrors, a story of reaching out, of impossible connectivity, of a kind of brutal connection as finally the sniper pulls the trigger and something of him passing, at enormous velocity, towards his target. 'I'm sorry,' he says. 'I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry'.
And in an odd way, there's something slightly similar at work in Beginning, a sense that despite the relative comfort of the surroundings, there is a terrifying thinness to these characters' lives. The physical action of the second quarter of the play is to tidy up. Danny is doing this for lots of reasons: maybe it's a distraction because Laura's up-front sexual proposal is terrifying to shit out of him; maybe it's also a kind of habit - he's lived with his mum for four years after all; and maybe it is also a kind of clutter that isn't helping his peace of mind. No matter what, as he begins to clear the room, there is a kind of denuding of the festivities that unintentionally (on his part) focuses attention on the problem he's trying to evade. Correspondingly, the play seems to be hinting that all of this could be swept away, that this flat in Crouch End is nothing without a mutual, sympathetic architecture of the heart.
I've used the word 'heart' a couple of times in this blog. And that's probably because I think David Eldridge just has the biggest heart of any playwright currently writing. I don't know anyone else who cares as much about and commits as much to his characters. He never, never, never takes the easy option and goes for the gag (though this is a very funny play). He always follows them truthfully, into pain and out of it, through the reeds of awkwardness and beyond. He keeps their hearts beating at every moment. Beginning is so truthful, so painful, so full of heart. It's his most mature and moving play yet. It's unflashily perfect.
Chris Thorpe's play is a more cerebral experience, on one level, but when you pay it attention, the heart bursts. The more the male character explains his brutal theory of society (a kind of organism that has grown too large and has introduced defects to its system and needs to be destroyed), the more we feel it is a way to cope with his desperate inner pain. I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry. Even his imagining of another person's dream is an image of a perfect communication that he has theorised himself out of wanting. the hand of the alien on your forehead imparting knowledge. Meanwhile, her perception of this frozen world is of a life where we are a couple of pixels in the design of a globalised soft drink can away from appreciating the horror. And once again, Chris Thorpe demonstrates his gift for the terse image that hammers an icicle into your heart: the dogs eat everything here.
One way to describe the difference would be to say that Chris Thorpe's play is formally experimental while David Eldridge's play is formally conventional. I guess that's one way of looking at it, though I think it's an unhelpful one. Any playwright knows that when you first write a play in any structure at all, no matter how conventional, it's an experiment. Who knows if you can do it? The real-time one-set one-act play is conventional; that doesn't mean it's easy. And of course, Chris Thorpe isn't working in a vacuum either; there's as much of a tradition behind Victory Condition (Crimp, debbie tucker green, Churchill, Stephens, etc.) as there is behind Eldridge's. I know now that Thorpe's play will probably get more academic attention than Eldridge's and that's because, bluntly, most theatre academics don't really understand playwriting. That's harsh and of course in many ways, theatre academics understand playwriting brilliantly, but there is as much formal sophistication in Eldridge's play as there is in Thorpe's. There is as much feeling in Thorpe's play as in Eldridge's. But academics, quite often, are drawn to the exuberant formal challenge and not to the wellsprings of dramatic feeling.
I love both of these plays and I love them equally. Their visions of the contemporary are complementary, vivid and brutal. They both use the great staple of postwar British playwriting: the naturalistic box set and they turn it into something new. And ultimately, in their different ways, they each give you every reason to despair for us all, for the world, to think even then we might usefully end it all, and then, somehow, they both win the right to hope.