A sun-soaked oddity has settled itself into the Dorfmann for the summer season, set in a holiday villa in ’60s and ’70s Greece. Alexei Kaye-Campbell’s new play sounds like it’s named after a naff cocktail, or an album of sub-Demis Roussous tinklings. And although it doesn’t slip down as easily as either of the above, it doesn’t offer much to chew on, either.
Nominally, it’s a satire on Western meddling in Greek (and world) affairs. Theo and Charlotte are an endearingly/infuriatingly artsy young couple who are captivated by a Greek villa they stay in on holiday, while Theo writes a play. Their idyll is disrupted by social bulldozer Harvey, a suave American government man, and his painting-by-numbers bored wife June. Harvey cheerfully assumes management of the younger couple’s affairs, pressuring them into buying the villa from its reluctant, sweet owner Maria. And then he bustles off to stage coups in an implausibly eclectic array of sun-soaked capital cities, before we meet him again in a second act that’s set nine years later.
The first act is fun, in a faintly anaemic way – it feels old-fashioned, a relic from its ’60s setting. Director Simon Godwin has gone for a straight-down-the-line staging, naturalistic right down to the sunburn. A hefty villa is plonked on stage, stark, white and sun-soaked like the set from Mamma Mia (but mercifully, without the revolve). And two well-mannered sprogs make their appearance with impressive naturalness – although I thought of Buster Keaton making his debut aged three, being thrown around stage for pratfalls by means of a hidden handle attached to his clothes.
Alexi Kaye Campbell’s dialogue is oddly stilted, and even this skilled ensemble cast struggles with it: Ben Miles makes the best of Harvey’s relentless showboating on world affairs, puffing his speeches up and letting them sail like sun-lotion greased liloes. But the second act gets lost in muddled, heavy-handed allegory – culminating in the moment when a phantom, black-clad Greek granny appears at the dinner table and starts shelling peas. She doesn’t speak. She’s the symbolic ‘ya-ya’, rightful owner of the house – but neither she, nor her son (who sold it to Theo and Charlotte) are allowed a voice. And Maria, her granddaughter, is allowed to speak only in broken English, subservient and shy. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s programme notes speak of extensive research into Greece in the 60s and 70s, but this research comes through only in the mention of local music, and the delicate potato balls whose name no one can pronounce.
Two recent thrillers have explored the politics of post-colonial interference in world affairs, in admirably even-handed style. Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand (staged at the Tricycle) is a tense battle of wits between a suave American banker who sees Pakistan as a financial playground, and his Pakistani captors who see him as the grown-up equivalent of a 12-year-old pushing toddlers off the swings. And The Dishonoured by Aamina Ahmad looks at the machinations of American intelligence agents in Pakistan, matched by equally dirty tricks from the Pakistani military and government. Both show American interference as an even-handed struggle into the dirt, a hidden fight with no glory to be won.
Alexi Kaye Campbell doesn’t give Greek people a voice. He deals in mysticism, in the young white woman as hysterical social conscience. As Charlotte learns the consequence of Harvey’s meddling in Greek politics, she becomes an increasingly shrill mouthpiece for the play’s values — no rival moral rises to meet hers. The American interlopers are manipulative, unprincipled ‘other’, and the Greek family even more so.
Theo and Charlotte would be a couple in their early sixties, today, white and from the creative, successful end of the middle class – a mirror of the core demographic of the National Theatre. But they don’t need, or deserve, this flattering, vaselined mirror image of British involvement in Europe. This is 2016, and we’re on the eve of Brexit – when our hypocritical attitudes towards the Continent’s all you can eat buffet should be painted in unsparing tones. But this is Greece for British eyes, with all the finesse of a polychromatic postcard or a Demis Roussos record, soothing the unknown in a fug of romance, retsina, and mournful guitars.
Sunset at the Villa Thalia is on until 4th August 2016 at the National Theatre. Click here for more information.