Thursday, March 12, 2015

'Game' at the Almeida Theatre, 9th March 2015

In 1968 researchers John Darley and Bibb LatanĂ© first scientifically demonstrated what is now known as 'the bystander effect'. Their interest was aroused by the much publicised 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. She was a New York woman stabbed to death near her home, newspapers reporting that her neighbours knew what was happening but decided not to intervene, one explaining "I didn't want to get involved". The crime became an emblem of increasing callousness in modern life; with Darley and LatanĂ© eventually proving that the larger the crowd, the greater the diffusion of responsibility and the less chance anyone will intervene.

Mike Bartlett's Game uses the bystander effect with unnerving efficiency. But whereas Kitty Genovese's neighbours impassively gazed out through their windows at an atrocity, we gaze inwards. Director-designer duo Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether have transformed in the interior of the Almeida Theatre into a human fish tank by way of IKEA. If you were to wake up inside it, you might not even realise you were on a set.

The audience observes this interior from four 'zones'. We can clearly see into the apartment, yet from inside they just see tastefully patterned wallpaper. And so, the audience primed with anticipation, the show begins. Our two guinea pigs are Carly (Jodie McNee) and Ashley (Mike Noble). They're a low-income couple trying to conceive and struggling to find a place to nest. Right away they regard the house with delight, the place light years beyond the crummy dumps in the same price range.

But there's a catch. Oh boy there's a catch. In exchange for living here, Carly and Ashley have agreed to be randomly shot at with tranquilliser darts by anyone who can stump up a couple of hundred quid. With a 'warden', David (Kevin Harvey) supervising, visitors park themselves in the midst of the audience, slowly take aim with a rifle and *bam* score a sedative hit on either one of the couple, resulting in them collapsing to the floor in a limp heap.

It's a high-concept scenario, tantalising in its brazenness and fascinating to watch. Though the play is just an hour long, the narrative spans more than seven years, allowing us to watch the long-term psychological impact of living as a human target, the increasingly troubled conscience of warden David and the rise and fall of the company running the venture.

In terms of tension, Game works gangbusters. The split drama (inside the house vs our zones) gives rise to a Rear Window-esque tension. Fascinated, we gaze on as the shooter reveals their personality, takes the gun, aims and fires, the impact triggering a synthesised ditty and data readout as Carly or Ashley lifelessly flop over. Though our sympathies lie with the couple, our separation from them gives us a sick thrill of voyeurism, as well as casually aligning our viewpoint with that of the shooter. The result is a moral condemnation of the audience: we're disgusted with the casual sadism but, in silently observing and 'enjoying' it, we become implicated by association.

We end up lost in an extremely icky moral maze with no easy exit. You try to unpick the allegory. Many possibilities present themselves, is it an examination of videogame desensitisation to violence predatory British class politics, a caricature of the modern housing market or the idea of civilians as valid target in warfare? At any given point in Game, two or three of these arguments (and probably a couple of others I didn't notice) struggle to reach the surface.

That a play is stuffed to the rafters with too much meaning isn't the worst criticism I've ever levelled, but it gives rise to an frustrating lack of focus. The set-up is so blunt that you experience critical pareidolia, confusion mounting as potential meaning twitches between several different options.

For me it was most successful when broadly outlining class snobbery, my hackles rising sharpest as the shooters cruelly poked fun at the couple's looks, accents and finances. Most of the shooters are crazy smarmy, the 'worst' Richard Sumitro's psychopathically privileged city trader, complete with a fat wallet, dull eyes and zero conscience. They're simply awful, each shooter taking comfort from inflicting pain on those lower down the social ladder. 

This is the same goobering class rubbernecking that fuels shows like Benefits Street, exploitative human zoos that mock and belittle their subjects under the pretence of social experimentation. The need to feel superior to those around you, to know that for all your woes you can sleep soundly knowing "at least you're not one of those scummy asylum seekers/benefit claimants/drug addicts etc (delete as appropriate)". This is a basic crutch for citizens in a hypercapitalist society, a take-no-prisoners corporate psychology bleeding into everyday interaction.

Problem is, in feeling superior to the shooters you're engaging in precisely the same process you're condemning. You end up feeling like a hypocrite (and a morally compromised hypocrite to boot). I've got nothing against shows that set out to prick the audience's consciences, but there'd better be a damn good reason for doing it. But Game, much like the walls of its plush cage, is annoyingly opaque.

That's not to say it's a bad bit of theatre in the slightest. The acting is top notch effortless naturalism, the stage design is jaw-dropping and the sheer clockwork precision on display make it easily worth seeing. But the guilt it aroused in me felt dishonest: when I don't have the option of intervening how can I be said to have 'chosen' a course of action?  This, together with the muddled subtextual elements, keeps Game firmly in the category of fascinating experiment rather than truly great piece of theatre.


Game is at the Almeida Theatre until 4th April 2015. Tickets here.

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