“What happens when a man goes through his own portal?” asks Craig Schwartz, John Cusack’s character in Being John Malkovich as the titular Hollywood star crawls through a narrow tunnel that takes him into the centre of his psyche. It turns out to be a place where everyone is John Malkovich and the only thing anyone can say is “Malkovich”.
Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s cult classic is referenced at one point in Israeli writer Maya Arad Yasur’s thrilling and bewildering play – though only as “that film about the actor” – and I can’t help but feel it was an influence on the themes and form of Amsterdam. It’s performed by four actors – two men, two women – and consists of something in between an inner monologue and a third person narration, in multiple voices, following the protagonist: an Israeli violinist, living in the Dutch capital and nine months pregnant.
It’s a good job this is performed in the round, because the contents of this play fly at you from every conceivable direction. It’s divided into two parts, and though it only runs for 80 minutes, it could have benefited from an interval: the halves are very different and the first ends with a deliciously posed question that would have provided an excellent moment for a breather.
To begin with we’re introduced to the story’s unnamed protagonist, who has received a mysterious document under her door: an unpaid gas bill from 1944. The first half follows her round a series of daily appointments – at the supermarket, the doctor, a bar – as she attempts to make sense of the document. What we in the audience experience is her stream of consciousness. Much of it is her thoughts about her Jewish identity, or more accurately, her thoughts about other people’s thoughts about her Jewish identity. But other themes ripple through, especially sexuality, pregnancy, music and language. The words also conjure a rich image of the city of Amsterdam.
At points the interplay between the actors sounds like a writers’ room discussion, a study group, or a gaggle of friends recounting some remarkable story at the pub. The writing can be frustrating – there’s a tendency for the actors to repeat the same thing several times. There’s a tendency for the actors to repeat the same almost identical thing several times. There’s a tendency for the actors to repeat the same almost identical thing several times as though doing so brings a certain profundity to the proceedings – but really it just drags.
At its best moments though, the mood and rhythm are totally different: everything moves rapidly, seamlessly, plot points being tossed around quickly by the actors, who have a great rapport with each other. Ideas stay in play just long enough to get neurons firing every which way in your brain, but never quite long enough to be fully digested. Some are pertinent, others less so. It’s chaotic, rewarding and tiring.
The second half, which tells the story behind the unpaid bill, is wildly different to the first. It’s a wartime resistance thriller full of unexpected turns that makes a familiar but important point in an original way: that our identities are always complex and that just outcomes can be difficult to determine. Like the first half, it ends suddenly and unexpectedly, sending a loud WTF clanging round the auditorium. And to end this review on a similarly blunt note, I’m not quite sure what else to say about it.
Amsterdam is on at Orange Tree Theatre until 12th October. More info and tickets here.