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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs


  Amanda Hale, Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan

As if to provide a titular companion piece to his 2000 Royal Court entry, The Country, Martin Crimp is back at his unofficial Sloane Square home with his latest play, The City, in a bewitching production from Katie Mitchell that ovverrides much of what is irksome about the text. You don't go to a Crimp-Mitchell collaboration expecting meaning to be neatly parcelled out intrigue and insinuation are bywords of both dramatist and director. So it comes as a bit of a damper on an initially provocative piece to find a denouement that turns drearily self-referential, positing what we've just been teasing our way through as yet another anguished by-product of the writer in distress.

Before that point, there's much to engage in an 80-minute show that is recognizably the work of both its creators, starting with the overtly conversational tone with which the cast's lone man,ongoing Royal Court regular Benedict Cumberbatch, speaks virtually throughout. Not for Mitchell any of the rhetorical posturing that screams I'm in a play - even when the play, as is true of this one, turns out to be largely about itself. Playing a man in a vulnerable position at work whose job trajectory lands him in an unexpected place indeed, Cumberbatch cuts a husband, Chris,at some remove from his wife, Clair (Hattie Morahan, uncannily suggesting a younger Lia Williams). She, in turn, is a translator greatly distressed at play's start to have that very day been given a diary by an (unseen) stranger called Mohamed, who has been grievously separated from the young daughter for whom the book was intended.Chris and Clair have their own daughter - played with deadpan elan by 8-year-old Matilda Castrey - who reveals a halting facility at the final curtain for tinkling away at Schubert on the piano. The same character (another child, though mentioned, never appears on stage) is rather more proficient at tossing off rhymes of a degree of verbal explicitness one doesn't tend to anticipate from someone so young, though it must be said that Crimp long ago primed playgoers to expect the unexpected.

The production contains the familiar Mitchell tropes, many of them followed through in a severe, blank-walled design from Vicki Mortimer that drops a vaguely ferocious curtain between the play's five scenes, as if in accord with the violence hovering at the fringes of the clean, often brilliantly lit surfaces on view. (The lighting designer is Paule Constable at her literally blinding best, her work clueing us in directly to the changing seasons monitored by writing that covers an entire year.) As Clair becomes more and more caught up in Mohamed's story, her own erotic demands extend to a request that Chris, in his kissing, impose [his] will. If that's to ally sex with power, Crimp here is merely expanding on a dramatic tactic employed at great length by Mark Ravenhill in his recent 15-strong series of playlets. There, as here, freedom and democracy are twin mantras of a time of war in which every aspect of our lives is rife with conflict, not least relations between the sexes that on this play's evidence are mighty strained. As if to further that thought, Crimp introduces a neighbor, Amanda Hale's drolly played Jenny, a deeply weird nurse whose husband seems never to be around, engaged as he is in some unspecified war that is hellbent on reducing an unnamed city to smithereens.

Does The City cohere throughout? Deliberately not, and I suspect Crimp would be horrified if it did. (At the same time, so charged is Gareth Fry's sound design that an especially prolonged interruption from a cell phone early on did for a while suggest itself as part of the play's gathering menace.) The<


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