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Theatre503 and Primavera

 

 

Madagascar

 


by J T Rogers

 

Directed by Tom Littler

 

 

Theatre 503

 

11 May to 5 June 2010

 

 

 

 

 

A review by Bernie Whelan for EXTRA! EXTRA!

From the first moments of J T Rogers’ play Madagascar, set in a fine hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome, the audience is drawn into the rarefied lives of its three characters. The play consists essentially of three monologues, from three different time frames which interweave to tell the story of a dysfunctional family of elite American tourists, always on the move in search of substance, but fearful of facing the terrifying void at the core of their beings.

Elegant, middle-aged and moneyed, Lillian (Sorcha Cusack) speaks from three years in the past as she waits in a room full of memories for her favoured son, whom,  we gradually learn has been irrevocably lost to her as a result of her own selfish introspection. Lillian reveals through her musings how her idealised worship of classical art and antiquity has been defined through her relationships with her two children, while she secretly climbed on her husband’s best friend pleading ‘This isn’t me, I don’t do this’ not once or twice, but year in year out, on the same bed in the very same room. Tennessee Williams novella The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone comes immediately to mind and inevitably, Williams’ most famous heroine Blanche, who mused on another set of Spanish Steps: ‘I don't tell truth - I tell what ought to be truth’.  Lillian’s lover Nathan (Barry Stanton) hovers constantly in the background but from the perspective of the present, puzzling over the mystery at the heart of this family - the missing son: ‘Secrets are truths waiting to be revealed but a mystery is just that!’ They both circle around the missing son’s twin sister June (Miranda Foster), who speaks from a few days before Nathan’s arrival, a lonely woman living a deliberately pared back, anonymous life taking tourists around the Roman sights and trying desperately not to ‘look back’. Thus, on this tiny crowded stage, each character manoeuvres around the bed, telling bits of the same story, always wrapped up in their own thoughts, always alone.

This is a play conscious of the long and rich American literary tradition of introspective fantasy which often found, in the words of Gertrude Stein, that ‘there is no there there’. The modern drama classics of Edward Albee and Arthur Miller have also made their mark on this play, with their many characters playing fast and loose with the truth and paying the price. A New World where everything was possible and change happened at break neck speed, America was then the land where elites had no history of their own but plenty of money to go shopping for one abroad. This was also Henry James’ stock in trade. The land where ‘consumer power’ was invented is also the land where alienation was most keenly felt and found a distinctive American voice. The language of micro-economics is pervasive in Madagascar, its male economists ever hopeful that a meaningful pattern can be found in human interaction.

Lillian revels in her role as matriarch, she indoctrinates her children in her rule to keep going forward, warning that people are dangerous and not to be trusted which ironically, turns out to be most true of Lillian herself. She raises them on a diet of classical ideals of beauty and purity but starves them of the truth which she knows to be much darker and more complex, like the darkly glowing fish that they glimpse on an idyllic swim among the coral reefs. Lillian takes the children on a constant Grand Tour, trying to ignore the neglect of their father, a great economist emulated by the bumbling Nathan and adored by his son but too busy in Africa to spend much time with his family.  As he is eaten away by cancer, Lillian continues her secret affair with Nathan.  Lillian promises to take the children to a fantasy Madagascar where they dream that everything will be beautiful and magical and this is where her son, a failed African Aid worker, tells her he is going before he disappears.

Sorcha Cusack plays Lillian with the right degree of blithe indifference to reality and she was the chief reason why I stayed awake to find out what happens to these characters through an hour and forty minutes of soliloquising. Miranda Foster’s June was an effective narrator of events but didn’t inspire the gales of sadness she ought, given the denouement. She had an oddly stiff way of holding her hands but her body, very much on show in her virginal nightdress, was appropriately toned and tanned for a Roman tour guide. Barry Stanton’s acting experience showed on stage - Nathan came to life as the only character with a grasp of his own failings who could therefore live with himself and even muster some curiosity about the lives of the other characters and the world beyond this fusty room overlooking the Spanish Steps.

There were lighter moments, when Lillian talks about the uniformity of small talk on her endless plane journeys:  'And what do you do' - which fills her with horror, as she doesn't do anything, so she tells lies. June observes the tourists she guides around Rome with the detachment of an anthropologist.  Other actors take up the roles of these sketchy fellow travellers and this is accomplished seamlessly so that the three actors populate the stage, at times with great skill. The set by Morgan Large was simply but effectively furnished to give the impression of luxury. The rich, romantic lighting by Will Reynolds provided much needed atmosphere and narrative coherence as each character emerged from the gloom to speak while the others sank back into reverie. All that could be done to engage the audience was done, but the play itself lacks the dramatic tension to make it really engaging.

The temptation is to reject the solipsism of these privileged people leading such useless and self-indulgent lives, but that surely is the point. It is their inability to engage with reality which proves fatal. There is some heavy trading in classical allusion, with Lillian as Demeter and June as Persephone, both desirous of Nathan who makes a dishevelled and bemused Pluto. The women’s feelings of guilt and longing for punishment followed by release is rendered through the story of the Vestal Virgins and, in parallel, the news story of the rape and murder of fifteen year old African girls in a boarding school which Lillian uses to highlight how insulated she is from suffering and hardship. When he has June muse that the Virgins must have longed for punishment and release, J T Rogers went off the deep end into misogyny and lost any empathy I might have afforded his characters.

The reason for the son’s disappearance isn’t so mysterious after all. The sophisticated, cultured women in his family are finally revealed as unbearable people who cannot tolerate others and ultimately cannot even live with the truth about themselves.

 

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Tickets: £14/£9 conc. (Tuesday ‘pay what you can’)

 

 

 

 

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