Vicky Featherstone is a fresh arrival as artistic director at London’s Royal Court, a transfer from the National Theatre of Scotland, which produced the excellent Black Watch, based on verbatim interviews with Iraq veterans. All the more impressive since there isn’t actually a national theatre of Scotland with a building to call its own. Featherstone cleverly evolved this austerity into a concept of “theatre without walls”, performing in venues as various as a drill hall and the deck of a North Sea ferry.
It is the kind of inventiveness the Royal Court, which has had a productive run under Dominic Cooke, needs as the capital’s main home for new plays. For her first outing, Featherstone chose a play by Dennis Kelly, The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, which must have looked like a safe bet. Not only had it had an outing in Frankfurt (German audiences are mad keen on English playwrights at the moment), but Kelly wrote the sharp, mischievous playbook for the transatlantic hit Matilda and has a wickedly accurate ear for modern dialogue.
Things start off well enough. We are introduced to the life and times of Gorge, a go-getting Everyman of the free market. A deftly choreographed chorus gives a witty resumé of a teenage boy’s fumblings, sexual and intellectual: “He read Marx and Engels. Orwell and Popper. And then to balance things out a bit, Ayn Rand.”
Alas, any such intellectual curiosity is missing from the rest of the evening. The fault is in the play, not the excellent ensemble. Gorge, a gawky, fidgety Tom Brooke, (a dead ringer for the young Nicholas Lyndhurst), has to choose whether to support his panicking boss, whose company is facing bankruptcy, or back a takeover by a female entrepreneur (Pippa Haywood), who switches from affability one minute to ruthless aggression the next. “Goodness or cowardice” is the choice before our callow hero as the action unfolds. And guess which he chooses. (It would be a dull saga indeed if he had chosen goodness.)
The problem, as the play clatters along for the best part of three hours, is that Gorge gets steadily more tiresome and the story intolerably preachy. A fundamental confusion surrounds the status of the main character, who soon turns into a bullying, wheedling mess with a penchant for elaborate lies: Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull, only without the good dress sense and with an Estuary accent. Is he just a one-off monster or symbolic of a wider rot? The whole thrust of the play and its trappings of a morality tale, from the Mephistophelean temptation in the boardroom onwards, is that it is a critique of capitalism and reflects the rapacious behaviour of entrepreneurs. The modern stage does not have much time for such people and would prefer as little economic activity as possible.
Trouble is, Gorge is so certifiably loopy, gambling his fortunes on mega-deals, attempting suicide and compulsively stalking one of his staff and future wife Louisa (Kate O’Flynn, who shone in another recent play about miserable Britain, Port, at the National). Given all this, it’s hard to take his alleged financial success remotely seriously. One minute he’s writing made-up misery memoirs, the next he’s able to buy up a newspaper at breakneck speed to prevent a journalist exposing him as a fantasist. We end, just as I’d feared we would, with horrid Gorge alone and embittered, a late peripeteia involving some shared DNA (the last refuge for a tired plot) and a smug student telling him off for having too much dosh.
Featherstone is a nimble director, able to enthuse and focus a cast, but she has a more inquiring mind than this boilerplate reflects. Directors need to know when to cut back sprawling plays and this one needed a very severe haircut. Call it a false start and hope for better.
Over at the National, we were in the more playful hands of Pirandello, with Richard Eyre reviving a rarely performed bucolic romp, Liolà, threaded through with bittersweet reflection on fortune and fate, if not much feminism. Eponymous Liolà (Rory Keenan) is a snake-hipped Sicilian lothario, with all the unrepentant promiscuity of a village Russell Brand, working his way through a bunch of willing women.
Although the setting is reassuringly Italian, with song and dance set pieces, grape-harvesting and a sun-drenched town square, Eyre has unaccountably cast the piece in stage-Irish, more reminiscent of Juno and the Paycock than Sicilian intrigue. The plot revolves around barren Mita (Lisa Dwyer Hogg), wife of Simone (a crusty James Hayes), the rich local landowner. Mita forlornly craves a child while around her flirty young women conceive at the drop of an encounter with the local fertility god. Things turn complicated when a plot is hatched to pass off one of Liolà’s offspring as Simone’s and a chirpy immorality tale turns into an amusing story of just rewards.
Finally, I haven’t dwelt much on BBC TV drama because there has not been much of note to dwell on. But BBC2’s Peaky Blinders, courtesy of Caryn Mandabach (The Cosby Show, Nurse Jackie) and writer Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), is a grisly, multi-layered treat with intelligence and research behind it.
The Blinders were a real-life Brummie gang in the aftermath of the First World War who hid razorblades in their caps for purposes we’d rather not dwell on. With Cillian Murphy playing their leader, Tommy Shelby in this incarnation, they are stylish, battle-hardened and cowed only by the matriarchal Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory). Sam Neill plays the zealous law-and-order merchant stretching the rules to catch them.
I have the odd quarrel with the dialogue, which veers between naturalistic and stilted. Much about the milieu is explained several times — could the producers possibly be thinking of the export market? No quibbles though with an ambitious and insightful drama with an extra serving of gangster film in-jokes.