In the fourth series of Mad Men, Don Draper descends into a soggy period of alcohol abuse and depression. Episode after episode passes in which the audience expects The Turning Point to come, but still it does not. Instead, in monotonous and repetitive scenes of drinking, vomiting and screwing, Mad Men absolutely succeeds in recreating both the personal experience of alcoholism and the mute frustration of those witnessing another person going through it.
These are, it is worth saying, some of the very worst episodes to watch. Not because one feels unswerving sympathy for Draper, or because they yearn unhindered for his previous Super Man days. They are the worst episodes simply in their accuracy. Alcoholism is mind-numbingly boring and – if, as an outsider, you want to help – an utterly frustrating condition to witness. Unless something happens and the character either succeeds in dying or stopping drinking, it is hard for audiences to keep devoting their time to watching a rendition of it.
In the case of Don Draper, The Turning Point does, of course, come. Vast quantities of liquid seen on screen start to involve swimming pools instead of whiskey bottles; a very Significant Other dies and Don Draper returns to us – made, for some, more interesting for having been shown to be fallible. Ablutions, a play by FellSwoop Theatre, adapted from a novel by Patrick deWitt does not include The Turning Point. For anyone. Like Mad Men, it provides an entirely accurate portrayal of alcoholism, tacky drug abuse (slightly less believably, I would add), divorce and dead-end-jobism. All lines are delivered in a monotone, either at high or low pitch and every character in the line-up is thoroughly unsympathetic and, to a large degree, ‘a character’ in an almost-archetypal way. There is no satisfying conclusion to the plot – which is, of course, the point, because what we are seeing is something which is intended to be a force-feeding of Realism.
In many ways, it reminded me of reading Charles Bukowski when, as a teenager, I imagined that great depth and meaning would be found in reading a lot about shit, piss and beer. But that was then, and since then I’ve encountered Nick Cave saying ‘Bukowski was a jerk!’ and find myself agreeing, especially when I think of something else Cave also said: ‘where do we go from here, but nowhere?’.
Ablutions goes nowhere (quite deliberately) and I kept wondering what the point was in watching it. It didn’t shock me to think of something passing out drunk midway through giving a blowjob – I suppose not many people who had a lunchtime conversation in the last year of comprehensive school would be – but it did strike me as uncomfortable to hear the roaring laughter of some audience members in exactly that scene and other similar ones.
There was something a bit gross about a nice Old Vic audience laughing heartily at a portrayal of, essentially, American White Trash. Put simply, it felt voyeuristic and it reminded me of the legions of graduates and undergraduates who spend their days watching Jeremy Kyle and, in a rendition of a modern-day Gladiator show, gawp and carp at the lower class people on the show. What do we get from any of this? Apart from a chance to very safely and very cleanly flirt with experiencing a dirtier side of existence through another’s writing – exactly as with a teenage reading of Bukowski – I would suggest: nothing.
I am not suffering from wanting A Happy Ending. I never wanted the main idiot of the piece to clean up, go back to his wife and to get a job in an office. I didn’t even want him to properly do something on his trip to the Grand Canyon (save for perhaps falling in it) or to have a revelation and to write a flawless novel. I suppose I just wanted a clearer idea of where one goes after the nihilistic void.