I think I studied the Second World War five times at school, which says a lot about how central it’s become to ideas of ‘Britishness’. When I look back at it now, it all sinks into a single congealed mass: dates, declarations, ‘Blitz spirit’, stiff-upper-lip, rainy visits to the prefabs and old air-raid shelters that still fill South London. In primary school, I made my own gas mask box and (guided by an ancient textbook that said that “everyone over the age of 40 will have memories of wartime life”) managed to mortally offend my aunty by asking her what she did during the blitz.
She hadn’t been born yet. But I wonder how comfortable the people who had lived through it all were with this school-mandated questioning, how they tied up years of pain, discomfort and less-then-heroic behaviour into an answer that could fit on a worksheet. Rodney Ackland’s play isn’t neat, doesn’t have a single image of heroism or dignity. It sprawls, in length and in narratives, like brambled vines covering a bombsite, gaping chasms just hidden from view.
It’s set in a nightclub called ‘La Vie en Rose’ – and it’s soaked in all the painful irony of Edith Piaf’s signature song, which she wrote in Paris in 1945, just after the war ended. Like the song, it’s an escapist bubble, that offers comfort in a post-war landscape that’s more grey than pink. When its owner and hostess Christine (played by a glamorous, desolate Kate Fleetwood) turns on the lights as the evening begins, Lizzie Clachan’s colossal, mystery-filled set transforms from grimy, falling-apart shabbiness to something that glows with warm pink light.
Each person who stumbles in is escaping something. Hugh, a thinly-veiled autobiographical stand-in for the author, is a writer who’s trying to get away from his uptight boyfriend and his foundering literary career. American GIs hunt for purpose while they wait to be redeployed. Julia is escaping her depressing “boarding house for old tabbies”, and as she careers about singing snippets of sentimental songs, she’s obviously suffering from some form of dementia. But she’s as alert to other peoples’ needs as anyone else in this play: which is to say, not very.
One of the most remarkable, maddening things about Ackland’s play is that no one ever really talks to each other. People talk at and over each other, lost in their own private solipsistic hells. They use the people around them (for sex, for money, for company) without really seeing them. And they almost never put the pain or loss of the war they’ve just lived through into words.
There’s a moment, towards the end, where they’re accidentally shown images of survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. They bury their empathy. Especially the glamorous, deliberately empty-headed Elizabeth, who lets the odd pang of feeling show through her constant babble of post-war baby talk: Sinead Matthews somehow makes sense of these lines, something about the squeak and rumble of her voice.
Absolute Hell had its status as a theatre classic cemented in by a 1992 National Theatre revival, starring Judi Dench. This time round, its reception hasn’t been quite as warm. Maybe it’s because we’re in a cultural moment where our relationship with the past is a little bit more fraught, where we’re not so much escaping our collective dooms as perpetually staring into the hellmouth, as revealed by social media newsfeeds.
Previous Joe Hill-Gibbins productions have turned A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a violent tumble on a mud heap, or The Changeling into a jelly-hurling orgy. He’s toned down the Hill-Gibbins-ness here and turned in something a bit more trad, maybe out of reverent love for his source material. What sings out is the play’s central gay relationship: Ackland revised the play in the ’80s to make its homosexuality more explicit, and Hugh’s struggle to cope with a partner who’s on the brink of leaving him for a woman feels painful and real.
What’s maybe less in evidence is the tragic weight it feels that the play’s building towards. A Miss Havisham-esque, ghostly sex worker walks round the stage, rattling keys to drum up clients – but she’s there for somewhat stereotyped atmosphere, not as a real, suffering person. For all the pain of Hugh’s journey, there’s a frustratingly anti-climactic quality to the way he ends the play, too: by moving back in with his mother, the possibility he’ll get back together with his partner still intact. Kate Fleetwood’s performance as Christine is wonderful, all sexual appetite and jealously-guarded glamour, but somehow she doesn’t feel like the possessed presence that keeps the lights on in La Vie En Rose: her final disintegration is sad, rather than devastating.
Still, if this production of Absolute Hell doesn’t come to an infernal boil, it’s got a kind of consistent, slightly frenzied fascination. It’s wonderful to watch the 27-strong cast surge and cavort across the stage – like having your face pressed up against a tank of fantastically dressed ants. Ackland’s text has a distinct, slightly surreal wit to it, built on misunderstandings and half-truths: the scenes where everyone gets swept up in the fervour of a persistent Christian cultist are a joy. As is the bit where Hugh’s mother sits on Julia’s bag of eggs. It reminded me, oddly, of Annie Baker’s John, on at the National Theatre earlier this year. Both invite you to sit and watch intensely naturalistic, slightly magical scenes unfold in a way that’s more about spending time with their characters then inviting a specific resolution.
What makes Absolute Hell feel so worthwhile is that the people you’re spending this time with just don’t exist anywhere else. These are the people that were too queer, too promiscuous, too brash, too hard-drinking, too everything to fit into the self-affirming narratives of post-war Britain (Ackland’s play was panned by reviewers on its 1952 debut: in a gift to theatre copywriters everywhere, one critic condemned it as “a libel on the British people”). Resuscitated and given new life on stage, they’re a reminder that living through ‘interesting times’ can be undignified, can destroy people instead of making them stronger, and it leaves a weight of trauma that can’t be sewn up into a single answer or narrative. And sometimes, it can’t be put into words at all.
Absolute Hell is on at the National Theatre until 16th June. Book tickets here.