There’s one image that jumps out from the text of Closer, punching me right in the same organ it describes. Surprisingly, it comes from the mouth not of posturing writer Dan but of the dermatologist with whom he repeatedly crosses swords in pursuit of passion. “Have you ever seen a human heart?” Rufus Sewell’s Larry snarls, furiously eyeballing his rival across his desk. “It’s like a fist wrapped in blood.”
This is love as Patrick Marber paints it: fierce, aggressive, violent. And selfish. Watching the four characters circle around and collide with one another, I’m oddly reminded of the ruthless corporate matadors in Mike Bartlett’s play Bull. Here, though, the prize is not a job but the equally fragile promise of love, of companionship, of The One.
But romcom happy endings are in short supply here. People are as likely to fall out of love as in it, twisting the knife on their way out of the door. First, Dan falls in love with Alice, a self-styled free spirit just returned from the States. After chewing Alice up and spitting her life out into a novel, Dan switches his affections to photographer Anna. Spurning him, Anna meets and dates Larry before finding her way to Dan’s bed all the same. Partners change and change again, cheating and lying along the way. Swap, hurt, repeat.
Again, like in Bull, appearances are important. Manipulation, Marber realises, is all about surface; it’s not what you do, but how you do it. Oliver Chris’s whining, wheedling Dan exemplifies this, clothing his selfishness and malice in a mixture of charm and feebleness. For all that he seems a bit wet, you get the impression that beneath his Hugh Grant-style dithering he possesses a steely, unforgiving determination to get what he wants. If Larry’s ugly side sits closer to the surface in Sewell’s grimly compelling performance, he’s no less schooled in getting his own way, while Nancy Carroll’s deceptively warm Anna has the talent of making manipulation look blameless. It’s just a shame that this version lets Rachel Redford’s Alice off the hook, going heavy on her vulnerability and light on the ways in which she uses her sexuality and air of mystery to her advantage.
Meanwhile, the world these characters move within – unfussily though not quite seamlessly shifted from the late nineties to the present day – is an all-encompassing advert for instant gratification. Love and sex might as well be consumer products, picked off the shelf or, as in the famous chatroom scene, ordered on the internet. It’s astonishing now how prescient Marber’s 1997, pre-Tinder play looks, anticipating the ways in which romance was to become packaged and monetised in the digital age.
This is a thread that David Leveaux’s production pulls on to the point of unravelling. Bunny Christie’s swish set, with its column of coloured lights and its large screen periodically adorned with Finn Ross’s busy video projections, all feels a bit much. The point may be that we live in an information saturated, image obsessed world, but by straining to apply this gloss the production paints over some of the raw brutality that makes the play lodge uncomfortably like a bur in the mind. What lingers is the very human capacity to hurt and be hurt.
The title, of course, is just another of the play’s cruel deceptions. No one really gets close to anyone else here; these characters are as allergic to intimacy as they are addicted to it, only able to reveal one part of themselves by concealing something else. Secrets are divulged not out of love but as a way of scoring points. Sex is as much a weapon as it is an act of passion. And even the most seemingly naive of the quartet turns out to be an elaborate fiction of her own making.
More than sex or lies or cruelty, though, Closer is obsessed with death, a fixation that is brought to the fore here. Marber’s is a play that fully subscribes to fellow playwright Simon Stephens’s description of dramatic action’s driving force: “Because we know we die, we want stuff”. The memorial stones that Christie keeps fixed to the back wall throughout are as stark a reminder of mortality as the obituaries that Dan writes for a living, a threat that sends each of the characters seeking that promised greener grass. In the spectre of death, though, perhaps lies the play’s one minuscule scrap of optimism. Because we know we die, we want stuff, but we also stubbornly keep searching and keep hoping. For all the characters’ brutality, maybe next time they’ll get it right.