Gloria isn’t about Gloria, an office-worker on the brink of nervous collapse. It is about Gloria’s colleagues, whose casual neglect and indifference push Gloria to her limit. It isn’t about working in publishing, although this declining industry is the starting point for Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ wild and spooky comedy. It isn’t about spiralling violence. It is about the ugly survival instincts that violence can provoke. It isn’t about truth. It is about the lies we tell ourselves to preserve the truths we’d like to believe. It isn’t about hope, progress, or the future. It is about a hole at the heart of things – a hole that is all-too often filled simply with ‘me’.
Gloria is quite a serious play then, but it isn’t really. It might be about a fundamental abstraction at the heart of our lives – a stripping away of substance, connection and purpose that is affecting our personalities and priorities in strange and worrying ways – but Jacobs-Jenkins is a seriously savvy playwright. He wears his smarts lightly. His big and bold ideas rumble beneath the surface of his plays. Occasionally they spit in our faces and they sting. But mostly Gloria is just brilliantly nuts and fresh. This feels like a play about today – our today – written yesterday in a whirl of manic inspiration.
Michael Longhurst directs with his usual insight and empathy, and the pacing is excellent. The first half plays at an unnerving and casual canter. We meet the publishing colleagues who orbit Gloria’s lonely life: Colin Morgan’s dishevelled but charming Dean (the good looking chap who promised so much but delivered so little); the spectacularly lazy and bolshy blogger Kendra (Kae Alexander); the pretty nerd Ani (Ellie Kendrick – always so believable) and the intern Miles (Bayo Gbadamosi), smart and annoyingly self-assured. Occasionally, when the chatter and noise gets out of control, Lorin (Bo Poraj – largely heart-breaking) from Fact Checking storms down the hall and begs for a little calm. Nobody listens.
Nothing really happens but it feels like something might. When this bubble of ‘nothing’ is finally burst, we laugh and feel relief. It’s pretty awful, actually, the events that eventually unfold in that office – but it’s also amazing, mad and a thrill.
The second half of Gloria rears in extraordinary ways, as Gloria’s colleagues try to wrestle back control. Dean and Kendra meet at Starbucks. They’re both writing books about what happened and providing their versions of the truth. Designer Lizzie Clachlan seats the two at the café window; their story is being framed by someone else at the very moment they’re pulling together their narratives. ‘Good luck with that control!’ sniggers Jacobs-Jenkins from somewhere in the wings.
What starts as a sympathetic meeting between two friends descends into a snarling confrontation. Meanwhile, in the background, other characters are present – but they are played by the same actors from the first half. Memory haunts the characters, and audience, in crazy ways. We are not allowed to mourn anyone but, weirdly, we’re also not allowed to forget. It’s all very confusing (and – here’s the guilty and strange bit – fun) and makes one think about the way the papers are plastered with the pictures of victims in the aftermath of an atrocity – but for a day or two at most. It only takes another casualty for those stories and faces to quickly be forgotten.
It’s a spiky and spooky second half that leaves the most of the audience equal parts nervous and hooked. Some of the older audience members, however, are fast asleep. The man next to me keeps accidentally resting his head on my shoulder. Perhaps he can’t lock into a narrative this jumpy. Or perhaps he’s just really tired. Still, it’s interesting that a play preoccupied with the gulf between past and present generations – and the different ways in which we look to frame our lives and fill them with meaning (or not) – should divide the audience in such explicit fashion.
In the foreground the characters try to move on as memories taunt them in the background. As we jump further forward, more is being lost. We move further away from the day of the tragedy and Gloria’s memory fades. But it is more than that: there is a hollowing out of everything.
The final scene takes place in a media office, where the boss has made a name for himself by appropriating Tinder profiles. A declining magazine industry has degenerated into this: an office that might make the occasional film or TV show but essentially just leaches off the internet. Words have been replaced with text speak: BRB! Smoking has been replaced with vaping. Blood spatters, which once lined the magazine office’s window, have been turned into a snazzy company logo. The office is splashed with bright bursts of ruby. The sanguine hues from those perilously empty opening scenes have been sanitized and re-packaged: a product to be sold off in the future.
Gloria is on at the Hampstead Theatre until 22nd July 2017. Click here for more details.