The Low Road – Royal Court Theatre

How many houses do you have?

I don’t understand the question.

“I’d like to remind you that the show will be approximately three hours long and that you may not re-enter the theatre once you’ve left it”. It has been amusing to notice various announcements and journalists emphasising the long duration of The Low Road, as if one needed to brace oneself! True, I do not recall ever sitting in Jerwood Theatre Downstairs for this long, but who would ever think of walking out of Bruce Norris‘s thrilling new work (except in case of a coughing fit, which did happen the other night)?

Dominic Cooke directs Norris’s latest piece, while getting ready to leave his position as the Royal Court’s artistic director this year – and what fun he must have had preparing this exquisite and revolting performance! The stage, which is first presented to us in its depth and emptiness, is quickly filled with twenty actors and mobile sets dancing through time. The sceneries are not pretentious, but rather feel practical and to the point, sporting clues about time and space. Even the fire escape seems to be left visible on purpose, as if to keep us aware of our surroundings.

We are first introduced to Adam Smith, the Scottish thinker and economist who announces his forthcoming narration of a tale following the life of a man whose destiny resembles much less Candide’s than Gordon Gekko’s. Similarly to Clybourne Park, The Low Road touches on racial injustice, but this time in the era of slavery in the American colonies. I would guess that Norris has a particular interest in time travelling and the weight of history.

The fable starts with the year 1756 and the abandonment of little Jim Trumpett on a whorehouse’s doorstep. Apparently, he’s been abandoned by “G. Washington from Virginia”! Before even reaching ten years of age, he fortuitously learns about economics, business, finance, bonds, stocks, and all those other words we hear today’s financial experts repeat all day long. The story takes us on a journey all the way to New York City in 1776 into a beautiful mansion where Trumpett (Johnny Flynn) handles his rich host’s accounts. After losing most of the latter’s money due to unsuccessful speculation, and needing to sell his slave, he and all those around him lose their dignities and lives. Among all the characters having lost their fortune, Trumpett seems least bothered about dying and we learn that despite his misconduct, he will be the only one remembered in history.

I was surprised the text presented such a high number of f*** words (mostly from Trumpett’s mouth), but believe this element was used to create a closeness between our current attitudes and those of a few centuries ago. Moreover,The Low Road - Royal Court it was very amusing to hear the narrator explain precisely where the historical locations in the play were situated today (“right between JP Morgan and a Kentucky Fried Chicken”). This proximity created a perfect contrast with the poetry of the slave John Blanke’s (a hypnotising Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) words and the overall rhythm of the text. This was especially the case during the dinner scene in Act I, where Trumpett’s hurtful words towards,  in his opinion, the innocence and archaic minds of his charitable hosts contrasted with the subtle musicality of the text.

I have heard directors repeat to their actors the importance of keeping the text tight and clean, and Norris’s chosen rhythm only accentuates this utter importance. This rhythm had me craving for more. The scene could have gone on forever.

I am never surprised at the precise choice and quality of the players at the Royal Court. In this piece, the actors take on multiple roles. At first, I admit I thought Johnny Flynn may have been too innocent looking to play Trumpett (this was probably influenced by the fact that I saw him playing women in two Shakespeare productions last year), but I soon found out his adorable face made him the ideal self-involved angel – a hypocrite (in the larger sense) even through his physical appearance.

Simon Paisley Day (who we saw in The Taming of the Shrew last summer) showed such grace when slipping into different roles and sported perhaps the funniest characters, both as a British general who is easy to bribe, and the American banker with no soul behind his smile and obnoxious book cover during the legendary contemporary scene of Act II. Interestingly, the latter’s staging resembled Scene II of In the Republic of Happiness, also directed by Cooke earlier this year.

On a different note, while the narration, vivaciously brought to life here by Bill Paterson, is essential to a tale, it sometimes distracted me from what was happening on stage, and vice versa: at times I focused more on movements than on Adam Smith’s words. Was it just me, or was the sequence with 7 year old Jim messy?

If I dare continue my criticism of Norris’s and Cooke’s production, I simply must ask – aliens? After two hours thirty of modest setting, the sudden bright lights and flashing bees were definitely a surprise. The fact that the epilogue’s message comes from extra-terrestrials is definitely a sign that there are still no answers and solutions to our questions – perhaps Norris found no better way to make this clear. In the end, nothing remains but the death of those that understand what is happening to them, and the temporary survival of an autistic man.

In conclusion, I would say that Clybourne Park made me think about my own attitudes as I left the theatre, whereas The Low Road lends responsibility for our troubles to people I am not sure I can compare myself with: overly rich financial leaders or merely those who know how to use finance to their advantage. “And so we conclude”: exactly what have we concluded?

Despite these minor observations, Norris’s new play was one of the best evenings I have spent in the theatre in a long time. His vibrant writing keeps one at the edge of one’s seat, and far from leaving in the middle of the show.

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