Monday, September 1, 2014

'Autobahn' at the King's Head Theatre, 29th August 2014

In Neil LaBute's Autobahn a car interior becomes torture chamber, confessional booth and psychiatrist's couch.  Divided into seven monologues and conversations, we meet characters in various states of emotional turmoil, trapped within the glass and steel of their cars, whistling down endless highways.  

The only scenery is the skeletonised frontage of a BMW 3 Series.  Scooped up from a junkyard, the car's paint is sloughing away, the headlights scooped out leaving a blank, corpse-like stare.  Sat front-row centre with my nose to the radiator I felt an ominous sensation that the car was bearing down upon me; dusty old bones of steel, chrome and plastic about to reanimate into carburettor-throbbing, tyre screeching, petrol-fuming life.  

The four bolts of lightning set to reanimate this beast are ZoĆ« Swenson-Graham, Sharon Maughan, Tom Slatter and Henry Everett.  They take it in turns to switch characters; driver / passenger; aggressor / victim; silent sphinx / blabbermouth.  LaBute's cast of characters ranges from a self-destructive teenage smackhead, to a psychotic girlfriend from hell right through to a neurotic cuckold and a pair of grossly pathetic paedophiles.  

These are horrible people; venal, self-involved abusers, masochists and the generally deranged.  LaBute spins out his tales with jet-black gallows humour, gradually teasing out the horrible truth behind the situation.  For example; we meet an overly cheery, spectacled man on a roadtrip with a young girl.  At first we assume that she's his daughter, but their dialogue gradually reveals that he's her teacher, he's abducted her from school and he's driving her to a distant forest to sexually abuse her.  

So not exactly "ha-ha" funny.  This is the kind of humour that curls in the pit of your stomach, LaBute poking fun at both the dippy innocence of the child victim, and the mindless small-talk of the paedophile as he engages in fast food small-talk while furtively tucking his boner into his waistband.

Theoretically pitch-dark humour delivered by a gaggle of grotesques should be very much up my street.  Some of my favourite comedy wades neck deep through the extremes of human behaviour; Chris Morris' Blue Jam, Todd Solondz's Happiness or Takashi Miike's Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer et al.  These comedies shine a lizght into the cellar of the human soul, judging the worst of humanity as pathetic and bizarre - you laugh, but you feel guilty as you do so.  This is what Neil LaBute is going for in Autobahn, but unfortunately he never quite gets there.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and various characters sitting a car for two hours or so rapidly gets a bit dull.  Not helping is that each of the seven vignettes follows roughly the same dramatic structure; layers of an onion gradually being peeled back to reveal the truth. Problem is once you understand this it's not particularly hard to figure out the 'twists' to the scenes way in advance, robbing them of much of their dramatic vitality.

Not helping matters is the dramatic device of having one character deliver a monologue to another, silent character.  At first this feels like a brave move; the opening scene is Swenson-Graham's teenage addict delivering an increasingly abusive tirade to her traumatised, silent mother, played by Maughan.  Shorn of dialogue every facial tic, sideways glance and sip of coffee is pregnant with meaning and significance, a masterclass in subtle, physical acting that beautifully ratchets up the tension.  Then LaBute pulls the same silent character trick over and over again, each time to lesser effect.

Dialogue-wise LaBute works from the same sprawling steam-of-consciousness style that Richard Linklater and his indie ilk mine so well. Words flow like water from the character's mouths, people so desperate to avoid silence that they blather out a constant stream of digressions.  It's from this information soup of information that we have to strain out the meaningful chunks of information - quietly playing detective.  This tactic works gangbusters in the best vignettes (the drug-addict and date-from-hell ones), and largely annoys in the worst (a dull rant about getting a "game system" back from an ex girlfriend).

Somewhat salvaging even the worst segments are the cast, who all demonstrate a chameleonic ability, cycling between personae like they're shuffling a deck of cards.  I was particularly impressed by their tiny shifts in body language, their posture and non-verbal communication going almost as far to establish their characters as what they say. With that in mind, Swenson-Graham is an obvious stand-out, switching from spiky insouciance to goofy psychopathy to virginal victim as effortlessly as putting on a fresh jacket.  Also of note is Henry Everett, who impresses with the quantity rather than the quality of his acting.  He's all bug-eyes, bobbing head, beads of sweat and flailing arms - a student of the school of 'mega-acting'.  The effect is rather like a neverending drum solo at a concert, technically impressive but a tiny bit numbing.

Autobahn is ultimately an experiment in limitations, how much drama can be mined from two people in a car together? The claustrophobic surroundings hint towards a Ballardian atmosphere - showing us humanity imprisoned by it's own poisonous machinery, inexorably speeding upon an endless highway towards a foregone conclusion. It's an interesting experiment, but not a successful one - the weaker segments drag down the better ones and ending the play with two drawn-out, disturbing (and not particularly funny) scenes about the sexual abuse of children displays a weird tone-deafness.  

Not the worst thing LaBute's ever been involved with, but not especially great either.

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