Crimp’s new play flirts with the spectacle of contemporary life; it dilutes its structures, appropriates its language and subverts its premises.
The play takes the form of a three-part portrait, one peppered with dry humour. At first glance, the production’s dramatic strategies are not dissimilar to Crimp’s iconic Attempts on Her Life; there is fragmentation, multiplicity, and tightly controlled power play. Yet In the Republic of Happiness is a more convoluted piece; there are times when it is juggling so many discourses that at all threatens to come crashing down. That’s not to say it doesn’t feature the humour and dexterity we expect from Crimp. With its karaoke musical numbers and its precise aesthetics – an average family home correlated with a TV talk show set and a futuristic minimalist no man’s land – the play bites more than it barks.
The correlation is this; in the first section, ‘The Destruction of the Family,’ we are suffocated in the politics of an average British family on Christmas Day. Granddad is somewhat senile, Granny is a former doctor who enjoys the idea that her taxi ride costs as much as the garbage man earns in an hour; Mum is a quiet endurer, Dad a repressed patriarch, Debbie the daughter is pregnant and her emancipated sister Hazel is jealous at all the attention she is receiving. This set-up is punctutated by the arrival of Uncle Bob in his glossy white duffel coat, who them proceeds to speak of his lover Madeleine and her explicit hate for everyone in the family. It’s a deliciously drawn out moment of confrontation sustained by humour, the play on stereotypes proving particularly articulate.
In the next section, ‘The Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual,’ we’re in a spectacle of sorts: televised insanity. Each of the characters is both a no-man and an every-man reciting the refrains of contemporary life through a stream of commercial jargon, self-help books and advertorials. And finally, in the last section, ‘In the Republic of Happiness’ we see the decline: a blank, white box of a future in which delusions of grandeur and agency dissipate into a stream of loss. Yet this is also the moment in which this portrait of inauthenticity falls down slightly; the change of tone and language is a little too slippery for the precise politics of the play.
Meaning isn’t fixed; it is embodied, represented and subverted. “We need to dig deeper”, Uncle Bob says of his understated entrance into the nucleus of the family. “We need to dig deeper”, Uncle Bob says in the final third of the play, as he stands in a white box alongside his Madeleine, the world dissolving at their feet, their cultural memories fading.
There is nothing deceptive about In the Republic of Happiness; in fact, its sharpness emerges from its direct confrontation with the subject at hand. It is distinct in its fragmentation of the three stages of loss, in which the specificity of the form itself begins to fade.
This impression is reinforced by the confident performances; Michelle Terry transforms Madeleine into a voracious anti-feminist of impressive emotional range, whilst Paul Ready makes the perfect interloper as Uncle Bob and Anna Calder-Marshall a despicable yet candid Granny. Yet while the play contains a sordid critique of contemporary life and the way we constitute our publicness, from the internal politics of domesticity through to the deceptiveness of authority, it is also elusive. It explores a unique psychological territory with dramatic flair and effective if somewhat heavy-handed humour.