Sometimes it’s hard to describe a play without appearing to defame the writer, the performer and the theatre responsible for the production. Here’s what I saw. A semi-naked woman lurks in a corner, with her back to the audience, shaking. Rap music pounds. The woman shakes and shakes. Then she shakes a bit more. And a bit more. As her weird spasms enter their 17th uninterrupted minute, the spectators glance anxiously at their watches. Finally the woman’s twitching ceases. Speaking in a New York accent, she recites a conversation between an inquisitive child and an older girl. The theme is explicit sex chat. We aren’t told the girls’ names, or their location or their relationship with each other, but we are informed that semen bears the flavour of its producer’s most recent meal.
The rap music restarts. The woman lies down on her elbows and knees, and starts to cavort awkwardly without skill or grace. Is she being violated by a ghost? Is she performing yoga on the live rail of the Victoria line? She stands again. Table lamps scattered on the floor begin to flare and fade. The woman reads from scraps of paper littered around her. They contain hate mail. Revolting insults fill the air. African-Americans are cursed and vilified. Among the abuse is a claim that only one in 100 million black people is beautiful.
A second rape scene follows in which the woman thrusts her groin into nothingness to imitate the barbarous actions of some unnamed predator. And still we have no clue who the woman is, what she seeks, or whose voices she is articulating. Everything in this show has the same emotional texture: angry, cold, self-centred, opaque, disconnected and brutalising.
After 90 minutes, the baffled audience clapped politely as the woman bowed her head and left the stage. The crowd continued to clap, expecting her to take a second bow, but she didn’t acknowledge their courtesy. What the hell was that? The show originated in America where it struggled to attract positive notices.
The Young Vic’s director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, is a skilful playwright who well understands the elements of storytelling. He can hardly be unaware that this botch job gives a very poor account of American drama in its current phase of development. At least ten years have passed since I saw anything this bad.
Less than a mile from the Young Vic, the White Bear Theatre is staging a newly discovered work by Sophie Treadwell. Her best-known play, Machinal, is a social satire that exposes the injustices of a male-dominated system. This is entirely different. Garry (not a great title) is a popular crime-drama about a bad boy on the run from the police. The show’s ingenious plot engages us from the start. We’re in a dingy New York apartment occupied by shop assistant Wilma whose sister-in-law Peggy, a busy prostitute, wants Wilma to join her for a well-paid threesome. No, says Wilma. She’s committed to her new husband, Garry, an unemployed jailbird with whom she has never had sex.
Garry sounds weird but interesting. He shows up with blood on his shirt having had a fight with a ‘fairy’, he claims. Further questioning reveals that he shared a drink with the man in a hotel room and then knocked him out. Maybe by accident. Then he admits that he choked the man to death and stole his wallet. Murder has stirred his dormant libido and he forces himself on Wilma for the first time. During foreplay he attempts to strangle her. All these twists and turns are crammed into the first 15 minutes of the play, which moves on to fresh terrain and becomes a fascinating love triangle between Wilma, Garry and a dashing young reporter investigating the hotel murder.
Apart from the homophobic language, the script feels entirely modern. Garry is a closeted gay man whose suppression of his sexuality has driven him to homicide. But when the play was written, in 1954, its themes and its psychological sophistication were years ahead of their time. No wonder the moguls of Broadway were fearful of putting this unflinchingly honest account of New York’s criminal classes on stage. The play has never received a full production.
The director, Graham Watts, gets terrific performances from an energetic cast led by Phebe Alys as Wilma, and Claire Bowman as the smouldering sexpot Peggy. There are excellent costumes by Emma Thérèse Boomer. Watts came across the play in the course of his personal researches into Sophie Treadwell (b.1885), who never stopped writing. At her death in 1970 she left dozens of scripts unproduced. It’s a scandal that subsidised theatres like the Royal Court (and the Young Vic too, it seems) are staging bad new work by female writers while neglecting a seriously talented sister. Time for a Treadwell season.
Young Vic, until 29 June
White Bear, until 22 June