“It is fair to say at that stage Gorge’s judgement became…clouded”
Already reeling from the news that the play was running at 3 hours long despite the 8pm start time, the further blow of a half-hour long opening scene that recalled nothing so much as the central section of the divisive In The Republic of Happiness meant that Dennis Kelly’s The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas had it all to do to win me over. The play marks the official ‘regular’ debut of new AD Vicky Featherstone after Open Court, the wide-ranging writers’ festival that occupied the Royal Court over the summer and rather than being a bold statement of intent of a new and different era, it’s an arguably gentler transition for a theatre already accustomed to the adventurous tail end of Dominic Cooke’s reign cf: Republic, Narrative, The Low Road. The fiddling with the start times does look here to stay though – in this season, the majority of shows upstairs are starting at 7.30pm, and downstairs at 8pm.
And as with much of this kind of theatre, it provokes a Marmitean reaction. Many laughed heartily all night long and lapped it up, I was left cold by its strained theatricality and languorous verbosity. This interview with The Observer reveals that the play was originally written for a theatre in Germany and in retrospect, that makes sense. The story of Gorge stretches over the whole 80 years of his lifetime but is played out in just a handful of lengthy scenes, key encounters that shape his existence as he comes of age in a time of rampart capitalism and is offered the Mephistophelian opportunity to have it all and more. Three grasping golden rules govern his ethos, maxims such as “whenever you want something – take it” but as greedily huge success comes his way, the cocoon of well-designed lies upon which it is built starts to crumble.
Adorning these muscular, punchily scenes – often just two-handers – is the voice of a chorus-like entity, with lines shared amongst the actors not in that particular section. So the opening thirty minutes, detailing Gorge’s early life even from the point of conception, is spread out between the whole company sat in a row of chairs at the front of the stage, lines breaking, voices interjecting, a disjointed mass slowly coalescing into a narrative role. This ambiguous voice recurs throughout the play, sometimes acting as a morality compass, sometimes teasing us with what is to come, sometimes just providing background information on where we’ve moved on to, but it’s a strange business, requiring the actors in the scene to freeze during its delivery and for me, too calculatedly knowing.
It is undoubtedly well performed by a crack cast though. Human punctuation mark Tom Brooke is very strong as the titular Gorge, best in the earlier scenes when his unique physicality Is unfettered, even the act of giving a hug looks like something brand new when he contorts his body around another. His studiously intense manner isn’t always quite as engaging as one suspects Kelly intends Mastromas to be though, the question of whether he is a victim of his time never struck me as one worth considering, the character never demanding any empathy even as the devastating impact of losing sight of how far his lies have gone hits home. There’s excellent work from Kate O’Flynn as love interest Laura, Jonathan McGuinness as his neglected brother and Pippa Haywood as a wickedly devilish type – I just wish I had cared more, at all even, about the story being told. But that’s the way of it with theatre as with life – you hope for a toffee Revel but sometimes you get an orange one.