The beautiful young American couple trying on the boho chic charms of Belleville, Paris, in Amy Herzog’s 2011 play, start out as affected and annoying and end up, well, even worse. The smug young marrieds call each other ‘homie’, smoke weed and are a tad culturally illiterate to their situation and surroundings. The dashing young doc has move them to Paris to find a cure for Aids in children, but really it was to fulfil his grief-stricken young wife’s fantasy of a Parisian adventure. The reality is she teaches yoga classes no one attends, has failed to acclimatize and is terribly bored. They may be married, but there’s a whiff of the eternal students about them, and they seem dreadfully emotionally immature for a pair already in their late 20s. It’s a lifestyle wonderfully captured by Tom Scutt’s shabby chic attic apartment set, which looks like every house share you lived in the year after you graduated, complete with a copy of Art Monthly and pseudo-ethnic soft furnishings.
By the end of Michael Longhurst’s precise production, the boho charm has turned darker than a black hole to drugs, knives and nihilism. The play is, in its own way, a technical marvel. Herzog throws the toolkit at it: disturbing revelations are drip-fed, the characters’ personalities are peeled like onions and audience sympathies for this troubled pair are pinged back and forth like a tennis rally. Over the course of 80 minutes, we rip through more topics – gaslighting, grief, meditation culture, toxic masculinity and the fragility of identity, to name but a few – than an encyclopaedia. The result is discombobulating and thoroughly depressing.
James Norton and Imogen Poots are razor sharp at capturing the couple’s nihilism, flipping from winsome charm to brutalising barbs in the blink of an eye, and they are eminently watchable to boot. Norton, in particular, for all his angular, smooth good looks has mastered igniting the flicker of darkness and despair behind the eyes and finds the discomfortingly controlling part of his character’s doe-eyed adoration. Poots’ lets her character’s kooky charm occasionally tip over into the gauche and, for all her childish ways, has a waspish core.
What becomes clear is that these beautiful people barely know each other and are instead isolated and self-absorbed – living in their own private versions of reality. But, by the time the play switches up a gear and we are plunged with them into the depths of their individual despair, they’re both too far gone to care much about. As we trawl, twist and turn through their psychodrama, Herzog goes to great lengths to show us how broken they both are, but the effect is numbing. It’s ultimately hard to like or feel sorry for either of them.
More effective than the relentless relationship horror is the subplot, which results in the couple’s Senegalese landlord and his wife cleaning and clearing out their flat at the end. Performed in French, it’s a masterstroke of visual storytelling: the nihilistic young American duo – privileged, bored and probably lazy – take their ‘easy’ ways out, it’s this couple who – literally – are left to clean up the mess. For once, it’s clear where our sympathies should go.
Belleville is on until 3 February 2018 at the Donmar Warehouse. Click here for more details.