Discussing Utopia, his smart pulping of pulp and prophecy that made quite an impact on the Channel 4 schedules at the start of the year, Dennis Kelly rhetorically asked Maddy Costa “You need to make original work, don’t you?”. And his picaresque denouncement of the personal principles which underpin ruthless capitalism must have seemed pretty original when he first put pen to paper.
The playful form that sees large chunks of the generation-spanning narrative delivered by narrators, the stark monochromes of the old school morality play and above all the ambition. The tossing out of the middle class chatterers that have run rampant in the Royal Court for so long, and their replacement with something older, and yet newer, something rougher but bolder, painted large on the serially exposed brickwork of the Jerwood Downstairs. Then Bruce Norris had to go and spoil all the fun. Because although The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas has a little more to say, and fractionally more to recommend it, its similarities to The Low Road extend a lot further than its punishing running time.
Here we follow the life story of an average man, recounted Tristram Shandy-style from ejaculation, through conception, into his twilight years. His life up until the age of 20-odd is delivered in one whopping chunk of spoken-word, split up among the six-strong cast like the bits of a Primary School nativity that the budget won’t stretch to. It’s a confident opening, and Kelly’s writing is boisterous and funny enough to just about see it through. If there’s a dearth of memorable lines, the entire play suffering from a lack of any really top-drawer writing by Kelly’s standards, but it’s still exciting in a devil-may-care sort of way. From here we visit Gorge at semi-seminal moments across his life, watching his pecuniary ascent and moral decline swim past one another like the tracings on the line-graphs that emerge in strips of glowing neon from the set.
As in The Low Road, our anti-hero has an epiphany that sends him careering into a life-time of Randian self-assurance, when a cardboard-cut-out Capitalist informs him that Goodness and Cowardice is one and the same, that might is right and absolute deceit is the key to worldly success. He rises to extreme wealth and influence, but at what cost, eh?
Kelly’s extensive play is at its strongest when it allows slivers of biblical parable to creep in at the edges, as in the confrontation between Gorge and his alcoholic brother, where Gorge’s lies have given him an almost Luciferean aspect. The journey to damnation is less successfully picked out. Many of the most interesting phases of Gorge’s life are told by the chorus rather than shown, and despite Tom Brooke’s best efforts, Gorge never convinces as a Machiavellian super-cunt. It’s the same slightly fragile boy we saw as a fill-in PA in an early scene who’s brokering a multi-million pound deal in a later one, and though there’s a crackle of brilliant menace in a battle of wills with his beloved Louisa, Kelly has failed to convince us of the form or substance of his iniquity.
Vicky Featherstone’s direction also feels deflated, failing to provide a backbone to Kelly’s baggy text, and Tom Scutt’s design gives itself over to the script’s insecurities rather than providing the visual ballast it needs.
The Royal Court had been crying out for more punchy, politically engaged drama for many years, so it’s particularly frustrating that the three examples that have filled the Jerwood Downstairs in 2013 have been so insufficient. Out of Lustgarten, Norris and Kelly, it’s Kelly who’s made the best fist out of it, but it’s a pyrrhic victory. With Dominic Cooke and now Vicky Featherstone shifting away from the concerns of the upper middle-classes and looking out to a larger world and a greater sweep of history, there’s a thrilling sense of possibility and openness with the Royal Court’s programming, but it’s going to need more assured and astute political theatre than this year has brought so far.