The scope of Chris Thorpe’s Victory Condition is staggering. It attempts to encompass the multiplicity of human existence, and to condense the thrilling, if not overwhelming collage of endlessly received information into one single laminate. It does so through two voices, Woman and Man, whose individual monologues intercut and intersect in mystifying but occasionally profound ways. Jonjo O’Neill as Man and Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Woman perform the rituals of one couple’s return from holiday, sharing narratives that seem disembodied, detached from their points of origin as they do so.
The juxtaposition of story and staging is captivating. Duncan-Brewster recounts a visit to the office and a potential brain aneurysm, while O’Neill personifies a Ukrainian government sniper eyeing down a female protester amongst the barricades. Occasional chimes from mobile phones shift the aural dimension back to the apartment, where we see Duncan-Brewster and O’Neill moving through their daily routine. They unpack, play X-Box, undress. There’s even a pizza-delivery man, who renders the banality of their evening almost absurd, in a brilliantly funny cameo.
Victory Condition does not lay out the ways in which you win, or even articulate the precise mechanics of its world. Instead it evokes a devastatingly rich system whose structure is not readily conceivable. Chloe Lamford’s set – a concrete IKEA apartment surrounded by scaffolding – is akin to a diorama. It models a scene made for the viewer to look in on, to observe and to critique. Yet it feels like there could be more concrete apartments in this scaffolded structure, that this scene is a particular but not exhaustive sample of a wider world.
Part of the challenge is to get to grips with what’s being presented. Nothing feels central in this piece; things moves towards a centre that seems immensely dense, a sort of black hole of information. While perhaps confounding, it’s also utterly compelling. Thorpe’s script provides some excellent imagery, including a bear with rapier selling pomegranate juice, but it’s also soupy and difficult to absorb. And because its direction isn’t straightforward, it can occasionally feel slack. The effect is best when the script is propped up by visual stimulation.
O’Neill and Duncan-Brewster both are seamless in consolidating their monologues with their actions, and also achieve an impressive intimacy, even though they barely speak to each other. Peculiarly, director Vicky Featherstone has O’Neill and Duncan-Brewster looking into the far distance when they tell their stories. It’s an alienating effect, one that makes our engagement in the them seem passive and non-essential.
But we, the audience, also play a role. It could very well be when one of our buzzing phones that disrupts their storytelling (much to the dismay of some theatre stalwarts). We are part of the organism they evoke, yet there is a perverse lack of involvement of the audience or even a recognition of our presence. Neither reminding us of our complicity nor being directly confrontational, Victory Condition doesn’t fully reach its desired scope. It misses out on the participatory presence of the audience, something that’s inevitably and irreconcilably part of the moment.
We are left to be observers, even investigators, of this intriguing, cerebral and destabilizing piece of theatre. What is absent, however, is a reminder that observers are participants; they can and often do alter what is being observed.
Victory Condition is at the Royal Court until October 21st. For more details, click here.