What’re you doing here Robert? – Well to be frank with you, I’ve really no idea. I thought I would just suddenly appear, so I did. I suddenly appeared.
Really? That’s it? Out of all the outrageous pieces of dialogue and monologue in Martin Crimp’s new play In the Republic of Happiness, this one was chosen for the Royal Court website? Were they perhaps looking for a few sentences to introduce the tone of the play? How can you even do that when the three acts in the piece you are presenting differ so dramatically?
Dominic Cooke and Mirian Buether, the director and set designer of this new production, start by introducing us to a family trying to enjoy their Christmas dinner despite small and apparently usual arguments issuing from one of the daughters’ pregnancy, the grandfather’s pornography reading habits and the father’s hearing problems. When uncle Bob enters and utters his hate for each member of the family at length and is joined by his girlfriend Madeleine who wears an unnecessary revealing evening gown, one wonders what it will take for the scene to end. Thankfully, a change of set and music are the answer – yes, this very dark comedy is also a musical!
The second act of the play is to me the most representative of its main topic: the poison which emerges from society’s individualisation of people and these individual’s constant search for “happiness”.
This central act is set in a television studio. Our eight characters are seated and start talking about themselves. They listen to each other and we are surprised to see them form a unified spoken choir. The television programme first revolves around the benefits of medicating one’s child, and later leads to the characters blaming their family members and cats for needing therapy. While they respect the society they live in, they would rather keep away from others’ comments and focus on where to buy the best food, how to compartmentalise elements of their lives like on a computer (“click and drag”) and and simply enjoy spending their money because, after all, what else is it there for?! That said, the lyric that sums up the play is:
Don’t give me that shit. Just keep your nose out of it.
While the transitions between these topics often present amusing and black-humoured lyrics, some of the music could have been cut and replaced by more of the characters’ neuroses. I must note that the acting was true and precise all around – I hardly even noticed it, which is rare and shows how spot-on it was.
After a final song, the television set disappears and an almost empty room comes up from beneath the stage, with Bob standing inside. Madeleine shows up and convinces him that the best way to show happiness to the outside is to sing it, to “hum” one’s belief. A kiss, which mirrors a sequence in Act I, is exchanged and turns into a silent fight. A young bearded man in sweatpants and a tall curly haired woman in an evening gown… I’d rather not go over the act again and again, as the result will remain the same: while I held on to Bob’s monologue in Act I until the end, I simply had to let go of Madeleine’s last words – the meaning of this act was all Greek to me.
I understand that a playwright may want to express the fatal humanity we are in and poke the audience so that nervous laughs occur. But tonight, the poking was so obvious that I did not feel connected to any of the characters and rather thought I could never meet anyone like them. To me, if the television scene had been developed and the characters had talked to each other in a civilized manner or, if I may say, “acted” with each other, there would have been something to relate to, like in Clybourne Park.
When the reviewer encounters a text that seems forever impenetrable, perhaps the occasioned frustration leads him or her to reject this said text. Is this what happened to me tonight?