at the Royal Court Theatre, Saturday 5th January 2012
The best place to start when trying to comprehend Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness is probably right there, at the title. For me, the key word is not “Happiness” but “Republic”, throwing up images of democratic rule and/or tyranny of the majority depending upon one’s own political persuasion. But the fact that it is a “Republic of Happiness” subverts this notion; how can it be possible to live in a democratic republic and yet control the emotions of your population? Are we okay with a constant assessment of a nation’s ‘Happiness Index’ as a measure of success? Do we understand happiness? What connection does it have with the freedom of the individual? These are just a few of the questions Crimp probes into in his play, and, brilliantly, Dominic Cooke’s production only makes these ideas more complex.
The play, subtitled “an entertainment in three parts” is, unsurprisingly, split into three sections which each revolve around a different notion (all peppered with songs), and it’s worth considering each separately to understand the span of the piece (this review, therefore, will contain spoilers).
Part one, “Destruction of the Family”, takes place on a Christmas Day, with two grandparents, two parents and two teenage girls sat around the table eating their turkey and veg. An argument is taking place about Debbie’s unplanned pregnancy (the teenage angst is captured brilliantly by Seline Hizli), causing an all-too-familiar conversation to take place across the generations and sparking another row between Debbie and her (presumably) younger sister, Hazel (Ellie Kendrick, who is captivating throughout). But these discussions and debates seem trivial from the moment Uncle Bob turns up with the errand of, apparently, repeating to his family why his partner, Madeleine, hates them. He goes round in turn taking pot-shots and committing character assassination, not holding anything back, made all the more dark by Paul Ready’s sinister, snarling, brash performance. Madeleine then turns up, and chaos ensues before she begins singing and the set changes ready for the next section.
It’s a fairly grim and pessimistic way to open the show, but the bleak comedy stops any feelings of complete dejection. This is, of course, a heightened, absurd situation, but the representation of family life is so truthful that it never comes across as completely far-fetched and many of us would surely revel in revealing these truths about those close to us. Though this group of people purports to be a family, each person around the table is utterly self-absorbed, not caring about the consequences of their actions or the well-being of the collective. This is how we are forced to live.
The second part (“The Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual”) is undoubtedly the strongest of the three, and though Crimp’s text has no form per se and exists more as a stream of connected sentences, Cooke places the eight actors from the previous scenes in a setting reminiscent of a chat show, as they voice their views. The five topics (‘The freedom to write the script of my own life’, ‘The freedom to separate my legs (it’s nothing political)’, ‘The freedom to experience horrid trauma’, ‘The freedom to put it all behind me and move on’ and ‘The freedom to look good and live for ever’) all hark to buzzwords of the early twenty-first century, with its fetish for the individual. The second topic satirises both those who demand to be in complete control of themselves and do whatever they wish and people (like me) who like to blame everything on social, economic and political factors. Crimp never (at least as far as I can tell) allows his own voice to penetrate too deeply, and in this section just allows the pen to flow in a stream-of-consciousness fashion.
(I’d just like to digress slightly here to acknowledge how pleased I am that we are finally beginning to break out of the spell that Prozac Nation cast almost twenty years ago. The sharpest writing in part two comes during the third topic, which contains a harsh criticism about the non-stop desire to “feel” something in the way that Wurtzel’s book perpetuated. Though the book has always been recognised as problematic within certain circles, I’m gladdened by the fact that major theatres are now beginning to effectively bring this debate into the public consciousness.)
The third and shortest part takes its name from the play, though is perhaps the hardest to comprehend. We go back to Uncle Bob and Madeleine, though this time they are alone and in a bright white room which has ascended from beneath the stage. Their relationship is even bleaker than we first thought, and they play games with one another to get what they want. Madeleine takes control, heightening the earlier dynamics, and repeats certain phrases to Bob as if he were a dog. Michelle Terry is wonderful in this scene, and is representative of the kind of self-deluded, self-obsessed individuals we all hate, if only because they manage to get what they want in life.
Crimp’s overall style in this play feels a little vaudevillian, consisting of sketch-like scenes, discussions and songs, like a variety show where the theme is “what it means to be happy”. Roald Van Oosten’s composition to Crimp’s lyrics is a smart mix of out-and-out pop-y cheese and balladic, heartfelt tunes which are always performed with a sly nod and a wink. They’re fun and, counter to the subject matter, they actually make us smile.
Miriam Buether’s glorious set design constantly surprises, raising more questions than it answers and leaving raw edges like an artist who hasn’t rubbed out her sketchy draft. We start in a rather vast, red-walled dining room, but soon move to the wavy lines and new-age chic of the second section, complete with swivel chairs and screens before the white box of the finale. Each of these designs is somehow repressive, stripping away personality so that those inside them have to conform somehow to their surroundings. They are lit brilliantly by Peter Mumford, who strengthens Buether’s suggestions of warm, cold or harsh moods.
Some recurring ideas and words crop up across the sections, tying the piece together and drawing attention to certain facets, namely notions of “fact” and “depth”. In the second section, every character on stage at some point says that what they’re saying is “fact”, but the absurd subject matter and the fact they repeat one another means this can’t be the case, meaning the way in which the other sections are viewed must be called into question. Likewise, in the opening sequence, Bob repeats “it goes deeper than that”, in effect instructing us that however we view this play just isn’t enough. No matter how much we think we “get it”, we must continue to dig (nullifying this whole review, I guess).
The piece is, however, far more than the sum of its parts. It’s hard to work out exactly what Crimp is trying to say with this piece, meaning one’s own viewpoint is brought to the fore, but then maybe that’s the point. He’s suggesting that the cult of the individual means that we have to work for the self and nothing else in every aspect of our lives, meaning a personal response to the play is valid. But then is that okay? If he’s critiquing that, then surely we should be talking to one another and coming to some kind of shared agreement? If we’re in the Republic of Happiness, then surely that’s out best option. It’s a demonstration of the intelligence of In the Republic of Happiness that these internal debates are embodied by our reaction to the piece as an audience. At any given moment, we may be laughing, but that doesn’t hide the nasty taste in our mouth.