If comedy, that un-pin-downable beast, lies in the gap between expectation and reality, then so does Lyndsey Turner’s production of Martin Crimp’s play. It constantly unsettles you and throws you off course – sometimes prompting nervous laughter, sometimes a more natural giggle. But however that laugh comes out, one of the things that surprised me most about The Treatment was how funny it is. Especially since it’s a story about an abused woman, Anne, who sells her story to an unscrupulous movie-making couple.
They’re clearly a horrible pair, to the point where they’re happy to smash her story together with that of a brilliantly odd aspiring scriptwriter who turns up a treatment for a film about a voyeur who finds himself becoming instrumental to a married couple’s sex life. But Martin Crimp’s text is soaked with ideas about how the very act of storytelling is, in itself, morally suspicious.
Anne’s abusive ‘husband’ (Matthew Needham) acts, weirdly for a dead-eyed murderous psychopath, as the moral compass of the play. He tells her that he doesn’t need stories to tell him the world is a cesspit of shit – as they sit in Central Park, and the bourgeois attendees of an outdoor Shakespeare performance trickle past. Spying in on this encounter, they’re us, and we’re them.
But Crimp’s uneasy critique of storytelling only gets more complicated. Moments before, we’ve heard an offstage actress shout ‘The Moor hath killed my mistress! Murder, murder!” – Shakespeare’s story of domestic violence feels like a call-back to Anne’s treatment at the hands of her ‘husband’. But later, this moment gets another reference, as Gary Beadle’s character rebels at being typecast as a violent black man, a present day Othello. And Anne’s abuser’s suspicion of Shakespeare doesn’t stop him dishing out a punishment that’s straight from the history plays – an eye-gouging.
These weird, endless self-referential layers endlessly call back and out to each other. It’s what makes the play so hugely satisfying – it rewards concentration, and repeat watching.
And Turner’s production ingeniously mimics their structure. The set design feels like the lobby of a Japanese minimalist hotel: generic-looking, but oddly luxurious panels are rearranged in each scene to creating a new setting, each with its own light and mood, but its elements recognisably familiar. She uses a huge community chorus, too, who are constantly coursing and trafficking across the stage, gawping at the actors, the same faces repeating in a never-ending array of new costumes.
It’s like a series of fevered scenes from a nightmare, each one cast with a series of familiar faces that are made strange by a new context. This play keeps you tossing and turning, it won’t let you get comfortable.
It doesn’t feel completely comfortable with itself, either. Its parts don’t slot neatly together. You get the impression that the long blackouts between the scenes hide hasty, scrambled scene changes. Crimp’s surreal interludes, set in a taxi driven by a blind man, feel odd too – they’re not quite played for laughs, but they still leave the uncomfortable sense that we’re laughing at a disabled man who slots all too easily into the TV trope of the magical negro.
But it’s not just the cab ride that feels uncomfortable. We’re at a cultural moment where huge swathes of traditional theatrical humour have started to feel a bit suspect, a bit old-fashioned – Ray Cooney’s farces have been all but banished from the West End, while Joe Hill-Gibbon’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream turned this frothiest of fantasias into a bleak satire of a sexually repressive society. New plays might have jokes, but they’re rarely comedies – and who can blame them, when centuries of tradition align comedy with a kind of jovial moral conversativism, its blows landing on the shoulders of sexually voracious women or effeminate men or disabled people.
And maybe a consciousness of this lies behind Lyndsey Turner’s choices. She doesn’t want to make laughter feel straightforward, any more than Martin Crimp makes storytelling feel like an easy sell. What we get, instead, is a shifting, fitfully hilarious portrait of a world where nothing is straightforward – and if we take it at face value, the joke’s on us.
The Treatment is on at Almeida Theatre until 10th June. Book tickets here.