Friday, July 13, 2012

'Re-Write' by Tosin Omosebi at the National Theatre

‘Re-Write’ is written by Tosin Omosebi (17) and is the winning play in the New Views playwriting competition for 15-19 year olds.  I was dreading reviewing this, and was hoping against hope that it wouldn't be awful.  If it was a stinker then the honest thing to do would be to evaluate it on the same level I would a play by anyone else, but then I don’t want to stamp on someone’s hopes and dreams.  Should I be kinder and more understanding given the author's age?  It’s a tricky dilemma. 

I shouldn’t have wasted time worrying: the play was great.  Directed by Anthony Banks and set in a psychiatric hospital it shows us the treatment of two young men, Kingsley and Tommy.  Kingsley (Oliver Gomm) is a child prodigy gone bad; a privileged upper-class snob who out of sheer boredom decided to plan the perfect murder.  Tommy (Luke Norris) is his instrument of murder, a working-class young man from a broken family who has been bounced between 13 foster families and failed by the system. He desperately seeks validation and security. Kingsley seemingly provides this security, but has manipulated Tommy into committing his “perfect murder”.

The entirety of the play takes place in the aftermath of the murder and the exact details are left to the audiences imagination.  The backstory seems to take inspiration from Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy law students who wanted to commit a “perfect crime”.  So, in 1924 they murdered Bobby Franks.  Their crime wasn't so "perfect" though, and they were caught and had a very high-profile trial.  Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ also mines the same seam, again taking inspiration from these real life events.   

Analysing these two is Doctor #476A (Sam Crane), a young doctor eager to climb the ranks of his profession through taking on high-profile patient.  He’s egotistical, self-centred and ambitious, although not quite as smart and in control as he might think.  Throughout the play he exudes an irritating smugness in his dealings with both his patients and the chief nurse of the facility (Maggie Service).  The nurse initially seems to be cut from the same cloth as Nurse Ratched from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, and is repeatedly defined by the other characters as a ‘bitch’.  However, in contrast to the doctor she clearly cares about the wellbeing of the patients rather than her own career ambitions. 

This play was performed in a ‘pop-up’ (I am really coming to hate that phrase) theatre on the balcony of the National Theatre.  It’s a big, white tent with wooden boxes for the audience to sit on, and is minimalist in a way that nicely complements the play.  The set is one big white wall with a door cut through it and a desk affixed to one side.  During scene changes, stagehands dressed as nurses slowly spin the wall, the side with the desk representing the patients cells, and the other representing the outer wall of the hospital.  The stark white of the wall fits in nicely with the white tent, creating a  sterile and monochrome Kubrickian atmosphere.  The set up of the hospital feels vaguely futuristic as a result, something helped by the doctor taking his notes on an iPad and explaining to his patients that he’s experimenting with ‘new’ therapies, which is why, for example, they don’t have a bed or don't learn his name.   The fact that it was in a tent ended up contributing to the atmosphere; it was pouring with rain outside and we could hear it throughout the performance beating on the outside of the tent.  It was slightly claustrophobic, and the audience being aware of the walls surrounding them can only help immerse ourselves in the surroundings of a cell in a hospital.

Kingsley (Oliver Gomm) and Tommy (Luke Norris)
The costumes of the two patients also blend nicely with the surroundings, grey sweatshirts, sweatpants and tennis shoes.  The outfits seem aimed to suppress individuality, and the fact that the shoelaces have been removed from the shoes seems ominously portentous.  The doctor, on the other hand seems relatively young and ‘cool’.  He wouldn’t look too out of place wandering down Brick Lane in his thick  framed retro glasses, tousled hair, unshaven face and rumpled suit (worn without a tie).  Throughout the performance, it is gently underlined that he is both inexperienced and narcissistic, a dangerous combination.  It’s a nice point of contrast with the nurse, whose uniform is always spotless, her hair tied up in a neat bun, she radiates confidence and professionalism.

All of the actors turn in excellent performances, but it is Gomm and Norris as the two patients that stand out.  They each seem to embody flip sides of the human experience, two people so completely different to each other that it’s a visceral shock when we transition between the two between scenes. 

Not knowing much about the play going on, I was initially a little suspicious about the character of Kingsley.  My suspicion hinged on whether we were supposed to find him charismatic and likeable. My initial reaction to him was that he was a pretentious little prick.  Fortunately, this seems to be the attitude shared by the characters and much of the audience.  Gomm, seemingly taking influence from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, or to a lesser extent Hannibal Lecter injects a streak of weakness into the self-proclaimed genius.  In between his grandiose speeches that ‘prove’ his intelligence his face twitches alarmingly, occasionally stuttering over words.  Is it the drugs they’re giving him, the effects of living in a psychiatric facility or his body betraying the guilt he denies that he feels?  It’s rare to see an ‘arch-manipulator’ type of character show such vulnerability, and to an extent this humanises him.

Conversely, the character of Tommy desperately seeks approval from those around him, and the performance underlines this.  He has much more physicality than Kingsley, our first introduction to the character is his banging loudly on a desk in frustration, and he frequently walks around the stage angrily.  Strangely I never felt that he was in danger of inflicting violence upon the other characters – the audience finds his situation sympathetic more than threatening.  In terms of body language, he seems particularly changeable, slumped one minute, and then ramrod straight and full of energy the next.  One moment in particular that demonstrated the control Norris had in this performance was when he was talking about his gold chain.  He was in the middle of a speech about how he’d never take this gold chain from around his neck.  Unfortunately (and I’m just guessing this wasn’t supposed to happen), the chain came undone in the middle of the speech and slipped from around his neck!  He dealt with it this extremely well, incorporating it seamlessly into his performance, and trying to fit it back together in character as the scene changed.

Sam Crane as the doctor is also effective, but slightly less so than the central characters.  I was unsure as to whether his character was supposed to be proactive or reactive, and I thought it was a little difficult to get a sense of continuity in his actions and performance.  This is mild criticism though, his intellectual sparring with Kingston was very entertaining, particular when they were trying to one-up each other’s vocabulary.  I don’t know that he was a particularly realistic doctor, but that is more of a function of the character than the performance.  He’s a deeply flawed authority figure, and for the plot to function he needs make poorly thought-out decisions and act incompetently.  

As the strict and overbearing nurse, Maggie Service is also effective, although out of all the characters she  tends to dip into caricature the most.  This isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, Service has a great sense of comic timing and gets the majority of the laughs from the audience.  Of the four characters, she is the only one without glaring flaws (apart from drinking from a hipflask), which necessarily limits the performance a bit.  As a reactive character without any big speeches or grand actions she tends to merely speak what the audience is thinking, or serve as a mirror to highlight the doctor’s lack of professionalism.  Dramatically, you need a character like the nurse to puncture the egos of the doctor and Kingsley – the character steers the audience away from admiring them, and accentuates their flaws for us.  The nicest character bit is probably in her final scene.  Her hair is worn down for the first time in the play, and for once she doesn’t look in control of the situation.  Whereas before she was commanding and stern, now her words are ringing hollow.  Her final action is an alarmingly sudden scared glance at the audience, and Service totally sells this crucial moment.

Doctor #476A (Sam Crane) and Nurse (Maggie Service)
There is a lot going on thematically here.  The play frequently breaches the fourth wall and a remarkable amount of the dialogue can be read as both naturalistic and as metafiction.  The metafictional aspects of the play are, I think, what most audience members will remember the play for.   The most obvious example is that Tommy’s hallucinations allow him to ‘see’ the audience watching the play.  In probably the most dramatic moment in the play, he leaps into the audience and starts berating us for taking pleasure in his misery and not doing a thing to help him.  This pretty comprehensively demolished the fourth wall, and nicely implicates us in the drama.  There are subtler metafictional elements at play too, the doctor repeatedly refers to his therapy as ‘re-writing the script of your life’ and that events prior to the play have already been established and can't be changed, to prove this ‘Tommy’ gets his hands on what he believes is a copy of the play’s script.  Maybe they even overdo it a little bit - by the time they're quoting the 'all the world's a stage' soliloquy from Hamlet I felt like I was being a little bit beaten over the head with metafictional elements.

What this play seems to be aiming for is a Brechtian disconnect, the aim of which, classically, is to highlight a social or political issue rather than to emotionally involve the audience in the fiction of the play.  This does create a bit of a problem here - the play more than succeeds in making the audience aware of its artificiality, but it is not entirely clear to what end.  If I had to pick out a theme of social injustice that this play is highlighting it’d be the treatment of mental patients by uncaring, hubristic doctors, and of them unthinkingly using a ‘chemical cosh’.  The text only touches on this briefly and without examination.  If anything, the distancing effect seems to be used to highlight another metafictional device within the play itself, namely the notion of ‘re-writing’ something.   The conclusion of the play hinges on a character re-writing a doctor’s notes, and throughout the characters talk of re-writing each other, or of making revisions to personalities or events.  I suppose Kingsley and the doctor seem to jockeying for the position of author, which is admittedly  fun conceit, but taken on it's own it's 'merely' a fun idea.  Metafiiction is a rich seam of drama to mine, and this play does so very entertainingly and with thought, but I left feeling like they could have explored just a little bit further.

These are all minor criticisms though, make no mistake about it this is a shockingly good play for a 17 year old to have written.  In just 45 minutes, it manages to deliver a hell of a lot of deft characterisation and effectively communicate some big idea.  I hope Tosin Omosebi is able to use this success as a springboard to a professional career, a wider audience and that she continues to produce drama as bold and daring as this play in the future.

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