The Short Version: Nick has been in prison since 1984 and he’s just been released. Of course, things have changed – people have changed too. So what’s it mean to be an angry young man when everyone (including you) has grown up and the world has moved on?
The Review: My first interaction with Mark Ravenhill was the execrable Over There at the Royal Court in 2009. I hated that play with a passion – it was a heavy-handed parable about Germany’s reunification and what capitalism does to people, complete with a wildly unnecessary moment of actual incest at the end of the play. Neither of those things felt like they needed to be put onstage and I found myself wondering why this Ravenhill guy – who people speak so highly of – was so lauded.
Of course, it’s perfect that this play should come across my radar. It’s like, in some ways, he was predicting his own future. See, Shopping and Fucking (which I’ve never actually read all of, only done scenes from) was this smash of a play – totally in-yer-face, totally shaking up theatrical conventions and what-not. But you can’t be an angry young man for your whole life and this is a play about that exact conundrum. He didn’t learn anything from it re: Over There – but reports show that he has, in fact, learned something from it when it comes to some of his other more recent work.
The play is sharp and spiky in that way so many late-90s/early-2000s plays are. Reading it, I was reminded of the way I felt when reading LaBute’s The Shape of Things for the first time. There’s something like a shock about the writing – it feels like a knife, the way the words cut right through to the harsh way people actually speak. It’s not something I’m comfortable writing (if you haven’t noticed, I’m a big fan of lots of words all the time) but, as it turns out, something I’m quite comfortable speaking. I think that’s because it mimics the way most people actually speak today. Every once and a while, someone launches into something long and flowery but for the most part? It’s rough and jagged. Guttural, even.
There’s a lot to be said for the way this use of language sheds light on human relationships. The play is about connection, more than anything else. It’s about how we connect to other people – whether through physical violence, physical intimacy, verbal violence or intimacy, or the withholding of any of those things. So it feels a little uncomfortable at times, as a character tries to get close to someone and then finds themselves thrust away. One character purchases a young man from Central Europe as a sex slave, maintaining that neither of them want feelings and that they just want fun – but that, not surprisingly doesn’t work out. Another character is consistently beat up by her ex-boyfriend (who never appears on stage). Yet another character carries the scars of a near-fatal attack by Nick that sent him to jail in the first place.
The play is about how all of our emotional fucked-up-edness – that anger that all of us carry around in one way or another – stunts our human relationships until we can find a way to let it release… turn the anger into love… or at least find a way to balance it out. There’s nothing wildly redeeming about any character here except that they’re all pretty real – and so you have no choice but to pay attention.
All this said – Ravenhill doesn’t do a great job at fleshing things out. The AIDS subplot is a bit heavy-handed and honestly unnecessary to the plot – you throw something as big as AIDS into the play, you’d better bring the philosophical weight to back it up and Ravenhill doesn’t. The play blows by, posturing at making these points instead of actually making them. Most of this philosophy I’ve been rambling about? It comes out of what the play made me think instead of what I necessarily read.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I’d like to see the play stage, in order to see if human beings speaking the words bring a bit more life to the topic at hand. But for a rainy gray spring morning, I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather’ve done than sit in a chair near the window and read a good play that called up memories of 2007 and 2009. I was reminded that sometimes theater needs to feel like a gut-punch – I’ve been up in the clouds for far too long.