Not to generalise but it feels like we’re in a cultural moment where people are finally saying bad things are bad. There’s a bluntness, an openness, a transparency which is exciting, even if it’s sometimes illusory, too. So Martin Crimp’s 1988 play Dealing With Clair doesn’t really feel “eerily topical” or “current” or whatever I’m meant to say it is. Its approach to exposing the nastiness of its four central figures is more subtle, as signposted by Fly Davis’s design: a gauze box, which cages them like zoo animals and makes you look at them. And a drip, drip, drip of repeated phrases and echoed slights anatomises their hypocrisies in precise, remorseless style.
It revolves around Mike and Liz, a very loudly middle class couple who are selling their house, using all their bluster to distract buyers from the nasty orange stain on the carpet or the cracks in the ceiling. This being 1988 (and definitely not 2018) there are no rumbling worries over Brexit or yet another recession. It’s boom time, and despite their talk of being “honourable” they’re out to get as much as they humanly can for it. Which means ditching their first set of prospective buyers in favour of a mysterious, dazzling pretentious art dealer who’s adding to his international portfolio of houses. Estate agent Clair isn’t the kind of hungry wheeler dealer you’d expect – played by Lizzy Watts, she’s cooler, quieter, expert in dealing with an only half-spoken, faux-reluctant kind of greed, giving each side just enough of herself but not an inch more. She never breaks down or opens up, which somehow makes her more moving. She’s turned herself into a machine for surviving in a relentlessly sexist, classist world, where her clients dismiss her readily – “she looks like a waitress” – or flirt with her, or speculate she only could have ventured abroad on a package tour or hen party. Her scenes with art seller James are almost unwatchably horrible: Michael Gould plays this man with the kind of pompous, teasing security that only comes from a lifetime of getting exactly what you want. He deliberately signals his apartness and superiority with artfully chosen reference points (the Pyrenees, naturally) and will repeat a line until it gets the result he wants. And he feels utterly entitled to pull apart Clair’s life like she’s a suitcase going through airport security – tossing her achievements aside, rummaging clumsily for something that might be of interest to him.
Meanwhile, Mike and Liz remorselessly patronise the ‘Italian girl’ Anna (Roseanna Frascona) who looks after their baby, complaining about the difficulties of getting her dressed. They mean that she won’t put on clothes before prospective buyers look round their house. But their complaints feel like something else. Crimp doesn’t reference sex or bodies, explicitly, but he makes you constantly aware of how both she and Clair are constantly sexualised and vulnerable by their position as employees – constantly, quietly, for sale.
It feels distinctly English, this couple’s distaste for talking openly about either sex or money while being utterly obsessed with both. And, perhaps, a bit old-fashioned, characteristic of an older generation than the one they seem to belong to here. Richard Twyman’s production visually moves the story to the present day (Liz does yoga, Mike wears open-neck shirts) in a way that doesn’t really work, when its satire is so tied to a specific cultural moment: one where ’80s greed combined with the upper class social norms that meant expressing desires was shameful. Crimp’s text makes you draw your own connections, and this production easily could too.
But if some things about this production are a little jarring, others feel so, so right. The performances in Dealing With Clair have a rare kind of naturalism that somehow sits alongside and heightens the cast’s precise delivery of Crimp’s surreal, repetitive dialogue. Each character feels real and vivid and full, and the story’s lurching momentum is compellingly nasty. And although we’re a good three decades away from peak yuppiedom, its unsparing picking away at gendered and class power dynamics makes me want to throw around words like “topical” or “prescient” or “current” – because those things are much, much harder to shift than a four bedroom house, or the unpleasant stain on its carpet.
Dealing With Clair is on until 6th December 2018. More info here.