Christmas dinner. Fake turkey. Christmas jumpers! Young Grandma and Grandpa. Annoying teenager. Non-sequiturs! Uncle Rob and his partner Madeleine rant. Ah okay, so he might have slept with his nieces. Is that the moment the “family’s darker indulgences are revealed”?
Light goes out. What the hell is this? Pop music, disco lights, actors appear in all black and two in white. Are the words shit, vagina, penis, anus supposed to shock me? In 2016, really? How did we suddenly end up listening to songs and monologues of nameless characters about airport security, attention seeking, self-pity, pre-conceptions, psychological problems, the cyber age, separated legs? Can I get out of here now, please?
If after reading this first paragraph, you are thinking: “wasn’t I supposed to read a review about a play, not an incoherent rant?”, then this play isn’t for you. If, however, you liked this unexpected and raw style, then you’re going to love In the Republic of Happiness. In the spirit of the play’s frank language, I will be honest here and say that I didn’t.
It’s unfortunate because the description sounded so promising: “The family Christmas dinner seems to be proceeding with the usual superficial warmth and humour, before the surprise visit of Uncle Bob causes an outburst of raw emotion. One by one, the family’s darker indulgences are revealed…” Based on this, I thought that I had a ticket for a play about a Christmas dinner gone wrong. One which slowly reveals family pressures, cover-ups and relationship dynamics, and that, in the best-case scenario, has a storyline, witty dialogue and a coherent message.
The Christmas dinner fell far from this ideal, and comprised the whole of just one scene: one third of the script. What follows in the remaining hour can best be described as a pretentious, postmodern and political musical with actors singing and dancing through someone – presumably playwright Martin Crimp’s – stream of consciousness about everything that is wrong with the modern world. Perhaps it would have helped to make clear in the description just what kind of play we can expect to be subjected to.
Whether you find director Una O’Sullivan’s choice to put this play on stage in the Burton Taylor Studio misguided or praise-worthy will depend on whether your preference is for plotline or postmodern theatre. Given the latter, Kate Weir’s simple black box set (with a Christmas table for scene 1) suited the style of the play. While the acting skills displayed in the Christmas dinner scene were not good enough to make me believe that Oxford students were in fact grandparents or parents, the singing and dancing skills of the whole cast – or their nameless character equivalents – are worthy of some praise. They make for a good Brechtian choir, at least.
In sum, and fully aware of my preconceptions, which perhaps is what playwright Martin Crimp encourages us to be, I will end by saying that this play really was a Christmas dinner gone wrong for me.