Buried in Luce are a host of interesting ideas – about race and cultural anxiety, western appropriation of identity and the pervasive role of social media in constraining and inflaming the daily discourses of our lives. But, too often, these themes are flattened out and deadened by the play’s inability to show rather than tell. It sacrifices credibility and human resonance in the compulsive pursuit of leaving nothing unsaid. It feels like a lecture rather than theatre.
Luce (Martins Imhangbe) is the adoptive 17-year-old son of Amy (Mel Giedroyc) and Peter (Nigel Whitmey). Orphaned in a nameless foreign conflict, brought to the US and renamed, he’s now flying high at high school, with a glowing academic record and a sports scholarship on the horizon. But an assignment in which he praises extremist Eastern European nationalists has troubled his teacher, Harriet (Natasha Gordon). And she has found illegal fireworks in his locker. Is she reading too much into these events? Or is he planning something terrible?
JC Lee’s play – making its international debut at Southwark Playhouse after premiering in New York in 2013 – pivots on questions of truth and symbolism. Luce is a flag held aloft by the school as a symbol of western enlightenment, his triumph over adversity its endorsement. For Harriet, the only black teacher at the school, who he is matters less than what he represents. And nervy, Facebook-using Amy is so tangled up in soundbite liberalism, she’s unable to judge his actions on a personal basis. Her unswerving support of him, rooted in guilt, denies him individuality and culpability.
Sounds interesting, huh? Well, it would be, if Lee could leave the characters alone: no one speaks with a consistent voice, regularly jumping into the kind of pointedly on-the-nose eloquence that leaves believability trailing behind. As Amy begins to dig into the public persona Luce has cultivated, even his shy and childlike ex-girlfriend Stephanie launches into an articulate takedown of Facebook. No one is immune from sounding like an op-ed piece in the New Yorker.
Of the cast, Giedroyc fares best, inflecting Amy’s dialogue with just the right amount of comic tension to convey a familiar type of anxious, internet-using modern parent. She’s trapped in a world of too much advice and too many scare stories. But, in spite of some stuff about his smoking habits, Nigel Whitmey’s Peter never feels like more than a cursory collection of generic character traits; and crucially, he, Giedroyc and Imhangbe, never gel as a real family. Despite Imhangbe’s efforts, Luce is, ironically, never much more than a mouthpiece.
Simon Dormandy’s production signposts the play’s outcome while striving for universality, seating characters in the audience when they aren’t on stage and reflecting us back at ourselves in a shiny strip of black plastic on the back wall of Southwark’s studio space. But for a mirror to be convincing, it needs genuine depth.
Luce is on at Southwark Playhouse until 2nd April 2016. Click here for details.