The music industry is ripe for theatrical drama. There are divas and egos, tyrants, artists and – of course – sex, drugs and rock n roll.
It’s also a patriarchal world of gender inequality. For decades there have been female performers managed by greedy male execs – women as the face and men as the brains behind the music. That’s reached a peak in the last couple of years, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement. Artists like Iceland’s Björk and Canada’s Grimes have taken a feminist stand against male producers. In Sweden 2000 women in the industry signed a letter against sexual harassment. And most prominently, American popstar Kesha was embroiled in a bitter legal battle against her former producer Dr Luke: she accusing him of abuse, him responding with a claim of defamation and breach of contract.
The latter seems to be the main inspiration behind Mood Music, a bitterly satirical play that taps into these immense themes. A young female singer is working with an older male producer on a new album, but who really has creative control? Is this a fair collaboration? Who really owns the intellectual property?
Bernard (Ben Chaplin) is an egomaniac. He’s a music producer who “uses” female singers (a “technical term”) because they’re “cheaper”. He believes music is “beyond gender”. He’s patronising and manipulative, undermining and smug. Yet there’s also a charming flair about him owing to Chaplin’s polished performance, oozing musical genius and confidence. He’s likeable, though we know we shouldn’t. In short, he’s that stereotypically pretentious male musician.
Cat (Seána Kerslake) is his total opposite, fitting for a play all about juxtapositions. She’s a young, naïve female singer-songwriter, striving for authenticity in both her music and her self, Kerslake carefully balancing Cat’s admiration and resentment towards Bernard.
The complexity of the creative process is shown through scenes of these two characters composing together. There is a dissonance between them that’s as electric as it is toxic, a whirlwind of musical terms and clashing egos.
For the most part, though, the narrative plays out through a series of therapy sessions and conversations with lawyers. With the central pairing perpetually on-stage, these interactions bleed into one another as emotional wounds are torn apart, carefully directed by Roger Michell.
The therapists themselves are little more than bland, functional ciphers meant to peel back the layers of the protagonists. Yet it gives this character study a forced structure, the therapists mostly stating the obvious to unnecessarily guide the audience. At one point Bernard is asked outright if he dislikes women, a question that is of course met with a scoff but one the audience has long figured out for themselves.
Joe Penhall’s script is utterly quotable. Like a song full of pop hooks, every other sentence is a punchline or a soundbite. It’s easy to be seduced by the language, but paralleling the narrative it’s all manufactured pop psychology and gender studies in the face of authenticity.
This language is predominantly Bernard’s, which is played for laughs throughout. Chaplin’s performance is certainly comedic and entertaining, but at the core it has the audience laughing at a vulnerable young woman being creatively steamrolled and emotionally abused. Is that really fair? Or is that uncomfortably perpetuating the very gender politics at the heart of the play?
Cat’s lack of voice is ironically juxtaposed with the myriad of microphones that mockingly hang from the ceiling. She is imprisoned in a bitter war of opposing viewpoints over intellectual property, a woman whose career is in the hands of straight white men – except, notably, her own black lawyer Miles (Kurt Egyiawan) and female therapist Vanessa (Jemma Redgrave), though even they ultimately fail her. Cat’s frustration is palpable as Bernard’s bullying, lies and overwhelming personality become infuriatingly tiresome.
As a whole, it’s all a bit one-note and eventually just peters out into dissatisfaction and paperwork to sign, leaving us deflated and without triumph. That is likely the point here, the music industry a metaphor for how art and creativity is always objective. There can be no winners.
The resulting play, though, feels incredibly cynical. It’s about a cold, calculating industry that exploits performers; the inability of lawyers to protect the vulnerable; the ineffectiveness of psychotherapy to help those who are irredeemable. But when the music’s good, who really cares?
Mood Music is on at the Old Vic until 16th June. Book tickets here