January 21, 1998: Marber, Closer

Lyttelton. Matinee.

A new play with four characters, like Stoppard’s The Invention of Love a transfer from the Cottesloe and a great success. The lives of four strangers in London become intertwined, repaired, and then finally broken up again. The characters are exceedingly well differentiated and very well cast — most especially Liza Walker as Alice (real name Jane Jones), a self-destructive but amazingly vital young woman, full of passion and capable of immediate engagement — and disengagement — with others, particularly men.

The tone and manner of the play are distinctly contemporary; there is a scene early in the play of the two male characters communicating entirely by net chat, the dialogue being projected on a huge screen as we see the two characters sitting at computer terminals typing away. And another scene, in which Larry encounters Alice for the first time, is set in a kind of pornographic club where the women are not allowed to be touched by the men but where stripping and other kinds of sexual activity can go on, for a price.

This is a sad play, and one that can stir up a lot of personal emotion. The real setting is the city as a whole, and the play is about the possibilities for connection and even intimacy in encounters with strangers (one character, Anna, is a photographer publishing a book of photos called something like Strangers in the City) but also about how those connections are thwarted or go away simply because people are what they are. A simple raised platform does duty for a stage, and properties are stored in sight of the audience at the back of the playing area and carried on and off again as needed. Flown in as needed, e.g. at the end, is a tall wall with plaques on it commemorating the unsung heroes of London who died trying to save the lives of others (there is such a wall, the Watts Memorial of Heroic Deeds, proposed by the painter G. F. Watts and, when no one came forward to take up the challenge, constructed by Watts himself). Alice, the character in the play, is named after one of those heroes who died trying to save the life of another. But Alice in this play is a self-destructive person who has a scar on her leg, the result of a fall from her bicycle at age 10 — she says — and we first meet her when Dan — the fourth character — has picked her up after she has nearly been killed by a passing cab and takes her to the hospital where Larry, a doctor, practices. Alice is later killed in New York by a car. And yet these persons are in some sense heroes if only because they are (except Alice) survivors of the chances of life that bring people together and drive them apart again. Connection, we discover, is a precious human opportunity, but fraud with complication.

If that theme seems a bit thin, the strength of the play lies in its dialogue and in the concept of character that underlies it. The dialogue is very direct, almost aggressive. Characters persist in asking “Why?” and “How?” and “What did you mean?” There is thus a kind of bare-bones quality to their interaction; they get right down to the core of things immediately, and they are as apt as not to speak directly out of their subconscious. What is the concept of character here? It is that people, given the opportunity, will throw caution to the wind and act on the basis of need, of overwhelming need. These four characters are extraordinarily needy people. They are all “strippers” in some way or other, and they know, for the moment anyway, what they want.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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