Do you ever get the sense that we’re one spark away from a revolution? Every scandal that hits the headlines, every policy inflicted in the name of austerity, every painful, progressive step forward negated by two leaps back. Revolution isn’t likely to be kindled from the National Theatre, but Suhayla El-Bushra’s take on Nikolai Erdman’s Soviet satire couches a call to arms in brash comedy, taking aim at all levels of society, all leanings, everyone who’s screwed and screws in turn. Shat on by the Tories, shovelled up by Labour as Uncle Monty put it. Society is aggressively, disdainfully groped in the aftermath of a man – Sam Desai – threatening to jump off the roof of his council tower, and being egged on by chancers and profiteers: a politician, a council employee, a singer, a filmmaker, a gentrificator. Nothing is left untouched or untried.
That’s true of both the script and the staging. So many devices are thrown at it, but it doesn’t quite cohere. There’s a drum soundtrack, with the drummer appearing through semi-transparent screens hidden in the set, a percussive overlord watching the action. Rotoscopic animations and sets emerging from the floor, break dancing. There are even opening credits for god’s sake. Most of these are only used once, flashy visual tricks that offer nothing to the play; they’re fun distractions, as pointless as the distractions in life that the play attacks: viral YouTube sensations, trashy TV. All just guff to distract us for a moment’s thrill or titillation before remembering the stifling drudgery of everyday life.
And in that sense the play is pretty miserable, despite being a comedy. The humour barely masks trenchant anger and barbed criticism of the state, of society, of politics and politicians, of vapidity and conservatism and permissiveness and welfare states and inequality and ephemerality and do-gooders and profiteers and opportunists and artists and scroungers and compassion and apathy and empathy and religion.
Yeah. It’s a lot. Too much maybe. An unusual blend of door-slamming farce and huge state of the nation themes. It’s a sugared pill comedy hiding the despair of a disenfranchised society. Destroyed and hopeless. Well-read Americans wank over Thoreau, who famously said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and this play is desperate to prove him right.
With so many people on stage at almost every moment, all distinct characters fighting for attention, the interaction and physicality has to be tight AF. And it’s not. One unfortunate factor that seems to contribute to the looseness is that Sam (Javone Prince) has lost his voice and he’s difficult to hear. This means that the rest of the cast can’t spark off him the way they need to. The timing suffers.
One of the most potent themes for the Lyttelton stage is the disdain the play shows for artists. Where there is suffering, there follow the artists. Filmmakers force their ‘unobtrusive’ cameras into every nook and cranny of some poor bastard’s life, while singers release charity records to capitalise on plight.
Art is caught in the clash of quick and slow: the instantaneity of Instagrammers versus the slow-cooking of long-form documentary makers. YouTube sensations versus Radio 4 approved geniuses. Self-proclaiming voices of a generation offering mild distractions and memeability. Flashes in pans, again and again. The clash is being played out at every level of culture and cultural response – Exeunt itself is a reaction to reduced and reductive word counts in national papers, to the trivialisation of arts coverage, to the listification of the way we consume and critique culture. Look below, look how much more of this you’ve got left to read. I’m beginning to bore myself. Is it worth anything, having this infinitely scrolling white space to play with?
Well, yeah I hope so.
But that’s not to say that instant reaction isn’t as valuable as 1,500 words about a play. It’s certainly more popular – get the wording of the tweet right and within seconds it’s been seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Even just the popularity is worth something (and not only in a monetary sense).
It’s all important and all given ever so slightly short shrift. I yearn to see Sam alone with his thoughts, with all these people within the world of the play leaving him be, with all the stage gubbins stripped back to let his words and performance work their own magic. There is greatness in this play, and it’s obscured by a thick layer of theatrical padding.
What El-Bushra gets across brilliantly is the self delusion of a capitalist society, particularly among self-professed liberals: as much as the filmmaker and the Instagrammer and the mental health nurse and the politician claim Sam should kill himself because of society’s problems, because it will contribute to a greater good, in fact the by-product of that greater good is profit. They are self-denying profiteers. Or are they? Maybe, actually, they do genuinely think Sam’s suicide will help other people and it’s the capitalist structures of society that make money a by-product whether we want it or not. Either way, liberals are the worst with their petitions and loud mouths and actionless causes. Or are they? Maybe, actually, they’re just trying to do good in a world that won’t really let them.
El-Bushra’s script creates brilliant ambiguities and alternatives, two options separated by blade-thin divisions: the political metaphor of the bizarre conceit – that everyone encourages a man to commit suicide because they think it’ll do good – sits alongside the personal story of a stupid man who just can’t commit. Sam is both conceit and character. When he’s surrounded by the larger than life personae of the play, his suicide is a dramatic device. When he’s with his wife, and they are arguing about marriage and money, his desire for suicide is a very real consequence of depression brought on by an impossible world.
It’s impossible because even watching TV becomes a political choice. Whether I choose to watch the latest Scandi-noir on BBC4 or Celebrity Juice on ITV2 is a statement. Why can’t it just be pleasure? Partly because I’m far too concerned with what other people think, and that means I’m conscious of what zeitgeisty cultural conversations I want to be a part of, and that feeds into my TV choice. Just the effort of living life, getting through the day, waking, enduring and trying not to die is exhausting; and all through every day you’re bombarded by illusions of choice, when in the places it really matters what you actually have is a lack of choice – especially if you’ve been dealt some shitty hand by fate and you’re not rich or white or in rude health.
Oh god, religion. Haven’t even touched on religion yet. Because that’s in there too, in a big way: Sam sacrifices his life in order to save society; he’s a humble man who hangs around with humble people. Yes, it’s the Jesus story but transplanted into a hideously modern setting. This is brought to bear most brilliantly in a sequence when Sam seems to be in heaven. By this time, Thatcher’s been there two years and has privatised the place. She’s surrounded herself with yeasaying devils and everything has to be paid for.
Yes yes yes, it’s all over the place, it’s sloppy, it’s not that funny, and it’s got more unconnected bits than a badly assembled IKEA wardrobe (drums! animation! breakdancing! rap!), but it’s all packed into this bizarre and sometimes brilliant state of the nation farce. So much good stuff to offer, but what it offers instead is uncoordinated, untamed and a little bit inept.
The Suicide is on until 25th June 2016. Click here for tickets.