Reviews London TheatreReviewsWest End & Central Published 24 March 2016

Review: People, Places and Things at Wyndham’s Theatre

Wyndham's Theatre ⋄ 15th March - 18th June 2016

“The fundamental sadness of being alive.” Maddy Costa reviews Duncan Macmillan’s play.

Maddy Costa
People, Places and Things at Wyndham's Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson.

People, Places and Things at Wyndham’s Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson.

I’m too fucking interested in staring into the blank void of my own personality.

That’s a quote. But it’s true.

Here’s another truth: I didn’t see People, Places & Things at the National because I have no interest in stories about actors on or getting off drugs. Or pretty much anyone on or getting off drugs. Not since Trainspotting was released more or less concurrently with not being told the full story of my [ ] spending a week with my [ ] going cold turkey in an attempt to wean [ ]self off heroin because the details were deemed too horrific. There are enough true stories of people struggling with drugs in my life – in the world – not to need to interact with fake ones glamorised by their interaction with art.

I’d like to believe that my problems are meaningful. But they’re not. There are people dying of thirst. People living in war zones and here we are thinking about ourselves. As if we can solve everything by confronting our own defects. We’re not defective. It’s the world that’s fucked.

That’s another quote. It’s also true.

Here’s another truth: I cried exactly three tears watching People, Places & Things. One when Denise Gough – insert your own superlatives here – delivered the speech above. Two more when her character and mother talk in her childhood bedroom near the end of the play. In the interval and going home, I am cheerful. She was fantastic. The writing was fantastic. At home I sit at the computer and break.

I have nothing original to say.

Writing this is pointless: all the other reviews have already said all the things. Susannah Clapp’s from which I learn the word striations, is as evocative and precise in its imagery as poetry. Lauren Mooney’s for this very website, says everything that’s true.

The best I can do – that’s the bare minimum you should be doing – is to say something truer.

We’re addicts because we’ve got a toxic combination of low self-esteem and grandiosity.

Another quote. I’ve used a variant of the last bit to describe most of my favourite people, friends, at one time or another.

We were lucky – or too dull – to escape toxicity.

At the age of 20 I knew that unlike my [ ] or my [ ], or the [ ] who died of an overdose, or my [ ], or [ ], or any of the [ ], I didn’t need drugs because I had music. I could stand at the front of a gig and feel the music stretch and roar and seethe through my body and know that the world was perfect. Music never let me down. At the age of 35, I switched drugs to theatre. That has been more complicated.

My name is Maddy.
I am addicted to theatre and writing about theatre.
Frequently this makes me insular and self-absorbed.

I find reality pretty difficult.

I find the knowledge that we’re all just atoms and one day we’ll stop and be dirt in the ground, I find that overwhelmingly

disappointing.

You know I’m quoting, right?

I’m sitting at the computer trying to write about People, Places & Things but what I really want to do is go up to my daughter’s bedroom where she sleeps and hold her.

This play is all the things I’m terrified of her experiencing. All the loneliness, the violence, the fear, the longing for something more, something better, something more interesting, the disappointment in life, disappointment in self, the giving up, the giving in. I watch the mother talk to the daughter and think: what would it be like if that were me one day?

We go to the theatre to feel and hear the things it’s not possible to experience or say in real life. Have done ever since the ancient Greeks used it to stave off social revolution. That’s true, isn’t it? Please?

I want to live. I want to live vividly and make huge, spectacular, heroic mistakes.

The first nine words are true.

I do my fiercest, most vivid, spectacular living in theatre and in relation to theatre. The same is true for Emma, Gough’s character, an actor. She feels most alive when she’s on stage. More than that: on stage her life makes sense, because someone else has already made the decisions for her, she just has to live them, to the fullest of her ability. And Duncan Macmillan’s text – insert your own superlatives here – weaves multiple strands of the theatre metaphor: the circle of group therapy is related to the circle of actors on the first day of rehearsal; a central component of therapy is role-play. At some level his play is a celebration of the power of theatre to articulate the most coruscating and excoriating truths of human existence. But none of this would necessarily speak directly to what it is to be the recipient of those truths without a key staging decision: that there are people, audience, in raked seating, on the stage. It’s a stroke of genius from director Jeremy Herrin and/or designer Bunny Christie, because as you watch the character who lives in theatre, you watch the audiences who live through theatre. This is a fourth-wall show in which two of the walls crumble with the strength of a character’s hallucinations, and a third is made of human bodies, in which you watch yourself perform: performing the role of audience.

I want to continue to be honest.

So I will also say this: you try not to take it personally when people who aren’t as good as you (ugh, sorry for the ego explosion) get writing jobs. When you go from being the ingénue to the tired mother of two.

But still you perform.

(Is it clear where I’m quoting?)

What interests me about looking at all those people in the raked seating on the stage isn’t that some of them might secretly be addicts – there’s a brilliant bit in an interview Gough did in 2015 with Amie Taylor for Female Arts in which she talks about addiction as: “a life threatening illness, but because of the behaviour it inspires in people, it isolates the sufferer. With any other terminal illness, the [impulse] is to look after that person, but addiction pushes people away and that’s really, really sad. So you get a lot of people saying, ‘I don’t tell anyone this but – my brother’s an alcoholic, or my mum’s an alcoholic.’ And they keep it from people, because they feel ashamed” – but that all of them are performing. Who and what?

(I perform the role of mother so inadequately that every day is freighted with a sense of failure.)

I think about the title: People, Places & Things. You mean like Facebook? I think about the performances of social media. The narcissism that inspires the feelings of ineptitude. I think about my daughter growing up in a world of sexting. And my son, but she’s the older one. As I write this, a white guy sends me a racist tweet and I don’t know how to respond. Social media brings us close, so close, to avoiding things and places, invites us to curate people. Is this good for us? It’s the question Macmillan leaves hanging.

(Tweets I didn’t send while writing this:
i was fine when i left the theatre but now i’m sitting at the computer crying and it’s like i’ve been kicked in the stomach [too obvious]
reading @beescope’s god/head to feel better after people places & things: now i [never worked out how this one ends]
i’m genuinely interested in how far i can push myself with deliberately not getting enough sleep
like how much can i break myself? [too true])

Self-medicating is the only way to survive in a world that is broken.

It’s slipped past 1am, Natasha Tripney has already posted up her review for The Stage, and I’m wondering if Chris Goode’s God/Head is the truest thing I’ve ever seen in a theatre. (The time as I write that sentence is exactly 10.42am; my eyes itch from only five hours sleep.) A lot of that was about theatre, too, and about god – or prepared to grapple with the “possibility space” (a great phrase I learned this week doing some reading about David Eagleman) of god, in a way that Emma, and possibly Macmillan, refuses to countenance – and about self-harm. Emma/Macmillan – and while most of the reviews I’ve read say Macmillan’s text is great but Gough is something else, my impulse is to flip that back round, to say Gough is something else, but she would have no foundation without Macmillan’s text – are very precise in the language around addiction: she self-medicates with drugs and alcohol. There’s an extraordinary speech in God/Head when Chris talks about the anti-depressant industry that clangs in my brain every time Emma/Macmillan says it. And again, Macmillan is precise in his choice of drugs: aside from the glam ones, there’s the prescription drugs for anxiety. Valium and benzos – drugs introduced in the 1960s and prescribed so routinely to women, housewives, to tranquillise them into acceptance of their domesticated lives that the Rolling Stones wrote a song about it.

And I think

how basically fucking angry I feel about, um…, the medicalizing of sadness: turning the fundamental sadness of being alive and being ultimately alone and wanting to fight that aloneness with love and art and fucking and being friends and hating capitalism and sometimes sometimes wishing you were dead, how angry I feel about a multi-billion dollar industry which depends on turning that reality into an illness that can be cured. That can just be suppressed.

I am quoting. I am quoting because through theatre I learn how to speak. I am quoting to be absolutely true.

People, Places & Things is superlative because Denise Gough is superlative, and Duncan Macmillan is superlative, and because Macmillan has written two plays before this – Lungs and Every Brilliant Thing – that, in different ways, think about the fundamental sadness of being alive and sometimes wishing you were dead and fighting that with love and art and surviving and even, just maybe, finding a way to love yourself. That’s the hardest thing, Mark, another beautifully written character, beautifully played by Nathaniel Martello-White, tells Emma. The hardest thing is to love yourself. To be kind to yourself. After everything.

Or maybe the hardest thing is learning to live with the presence and absence and impossible, brutish complexity of truth.

People, Places and Things is on at Wyndham’s Theatre until 18th June 2016. Click here for tickets.

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa writes about theatre and music, as much as possible at the same time. Preferably with a recipe included. An occasional contributor to the Guardian, she found one blog (Deliq) wasn't enough, so now co-hosts four. She is critical writer, or critic in residence, or embedded critic, with Chris Goode & Company; through her work with them, and with Dialogue, the organisation she co-founded with Jake Orr, she is attempting to rethink the relationship between people who make, watch and write about theatre. At least once a week she decides she should stop writing about theatre and do something more useful instead.

Review: People, Places and Things at Wyndham’s Theatre Show Info


Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Written by Duncan Macmillan

Cast includes Jacob James Beswick, Denise Gough, Nari Blair-Mangat, Alastair Cope, Jacqui Dubois, Charlotte Gascoyne, Sally George, Kevin McMonagle, Nathaniel Martello-White, Barbara Marten, David Rubin and Laura Woodward

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