– I was born right here. Look, here’s the blood stain. – That is a wine stain!
When walking up the three stories that lead to the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs and being halted on the last steps by the queue that has formed right before the space’s entrance, one does feel quite exclusive. Tickets are limited, purchased on the day, voices quiet down, we expect to be surprised by a brand new set – we forget where we were a few minutes before; only later, when one of the characters asks his interlocutor whether he is familiar with the lack of peace in London, are we reminded that we are actually in the capital.
Before the set of No Quarter, Polly Stenham’s new play, comes into view, the audience is led through a short but effective warm wooden hallway, which presents bookshelves, a few dead animals’ heads and candles. The thrust stage which then emerges presents the noble but chaotic and deteriorating interior of a mansion in the English countryside. A record player, a wooden grand piano and classic liquor carafes take us to an unknown time. However, as the actors start to communicate, we do notice that we are very much in the present.
The play is split into two main parts. They are both difficult to describe, as Stenham’s writing and Jeremy Herrin’s directing invite us to reflect on multiple themes, going from the masks and costumes we wear in our lives to trust, hallucinogenic drugs, homosexuality and overall the state of mind of today’s wealthy twenty-somethings, who are trying to find something to do, something to play. It had been a while since I had felt so close to a cast ensemble, as most of them are about my age. Needless to point out the beautiful and precise acting, as so often at the Royal Court.
The first large scene introduces us to Robin (Tom Sturridge), a twenty-something supposed artist who is hiding his demented mother (Maureen Beattie) from the world and especially from his older brother, Oliver (Patrick Kennedy). The scene progresses slowly and focuses on the forms of humanity that exist in the expression of two sons’ love for each other and for their mother. As we are presented with Robin, the artist and “gypsy”, apparently in touch with his feelings, and Oliver, the politician who puts reason first, it would seem in a first instance that Robin feels more deeply for his mother’s illness than Oliver. However, in the play’s final scene, it becomes clear that if we drown in our own sorrow, we don’t see that others could also be suffering with us.
This idea of selfishness appears throughout the highly energetic, strangely humorous and rhythmic second scene. After his mother’s wake, Robin is joined by the drug dealer Tommy (an excellent Taron Egerton) and his two only friends in the world, the twins Scout (Zoe Boyle) and Arlo (an amusing and unique Joshua James). Their night ends up on the floor, as they “accidentally” drink a cocktail mixed with MDMA after they decided to celebrate Robin’s youth by dressing up in costumes that make the mansion suddenly seem to be hosting a masked ball. The distance between century old and contemporary worlds draw very close, but are in turn separated by the reality of language and the presence of iPhones, cheque books and Pall Mall cigarettes.
Robin’s addiction to drugs reminded me of so many artists who died from their excess. Some of these became legends because their work, produced under the influence, was brilliant. Does this mean that artists who do not choose this path could be less talented, less in touch with themselves? In Robin’s case, are these drugs a lie or a sign of his art? This said, art is never explicitly demonstrated during the story – he could be pretending, believing after years of isolation and denial that he has a true gift. We will never know.
These unanswered questions revolving around this selfish young man make his final realisation that he is not on his own in the world pathetic and refreshing at the same time. Perhaps Stenham is simply saying “get your act together”.