Review: In the Republic of Happiness, Royal Court

“Go into a theatre and there would be whatever…”

Martin Crimp’s new play for the Royal Court is likely to become as divisive a work as we have seen this year if initial responses are anything to go by. Subtitled a ‘three part entertainment’, In the Republic of Happiness starts off rather traditionally as an invective-filled Christmas dinner potboiler, which then shifts entirely into a freeform confessional exploration of modern society’s preoccupations and then lastly into a two-hander of strange intensity as two of the first scene’s characters returns. And there’s songs, lots and lots of songs from Roald van Oosten. It’s a rum mixture to be sure but it has a heady, intoxicating power which is quite unlike anything else in London’s theatres at the moment.

The unconventional nature of the show means that will undoubtedly provoke strong reactions – our performance saw about a half a dozen walkouts and friends declare it the worst thing they had ever seen as we stumbled out into the bar and already, amusing reviews have popped up from other bloggers such as Sans Taste’s skewering of the dialogue here. But in some ways it’s a shame to go for the easy laugh (as well written as it is) as he doesn’t engage with what Crimp is actually doing. Much of the play is deliberately non-naturalistic, the contrast thrown into especially stark relief given the opening scene and in its layered density, constant interplay and poetic echoes requires perhaps a little more consideration and reflection than a kneejerk reaction will allow.

That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges here, not at all. The progress of the middle section, as it rattles through its deconstruction of our ostensibly ideal modern world, has a meandering quality that pushes on and on so that if one is not attuned to the mood of the piece, it might seem endless (the majority of the walkouts and audience shuffling came here). And the final scene’s return to two of the characters from the first but in some kind of dictatorial state (or so I reckoned) adds in a further level of slipperiness as to almost revel in its obtuseness. But even there, I liked the sly hints that even the ruling classes suffer from the same miserable malaise as the ‘citizens’ and it is performed most vividly by a stellar Michelle Terry and Paul Ready, both excellent.

And it is undeniably well-performed, so that even in its most impenetrable moments, I was never bored. The group interplay in the central scene is superb as the characters stutter and start talking over the top of each other but always falling away to let a single speaker be heard. There’s an almost hypnotic rhythm to it and striking moments come shining out from the cacophony – Ready’s pained protestations, Anna Calder-Marshall’s baleful stare, Emma Fielding’s wickedly playful glint – and a deeper sense of meaning does come through in the ambivalence and subsequent recasting of the words and phrases with which we are teased. Miriam Buether’s evolving set design also impresses with its transformative verve.

It is always interesting to see which are the plays that really create such levels of indignation in people and I am far from immune from such impulses: wild horses couldn’t have dragged me back for the second half of the recent Troilus and Cressida but knowing a little of Crimp’s work in advance and being able to fix my expectations accordingly set me in good stead here and perhaps more so than for my companions. For there is an audacity at work here that has to be, if not admired, then at least appreciated, for the way in which Crimp, Dominic Cooke and the Royal Court are embracing the unconventional, the experimental, the provocative. It’s ok not to like it, it really is, but just because it is different doesn’t necessarily mean that it is bad.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £3
Booking until 19th January

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