at the Royal Court Theatre, Thursday 12th September 2013
Gorge Mastromas, the titular character of Dennis Kelly’s début at the Royal Court, lives his life according to three rules:
- Whenever you want something – take it.
- All that is required to take everything you want is absolute will and an ability to lie to the depths of your heart.
- The effectiveness of a lie is compromised only by your attachment to the outcome of the lie. Therefore never think of the outcome, always assume discovery, embrace each second as if it were your last. Never, ever, ever regret.
Now, much has already been written about the way in which The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas acts as a morality play of late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century selfishness and where it can lead if stretched to extremes. This much is clear – we follow the story of Gorge from his conception in 1972 and head through lies and dishonesty to an abstract future where he sits on money, friendless and useless. Most of this comes out of the flaw in logic of ‘Rule One’, and the overlap between that and the pedagogy of late capitalism isn’t hard to miss.
I’m more interested, however, in the second two rules, which do something far more complex than just critique a neoliberal mindset. At one point fairly early on in Vicky Featherstone’s production, a back wall ascends to reveal a giant lit sign reading “GOODNESS OR COWARDICE”, hanging in front of the brick back wall of the theatre in a way which mimics those neon lights on the front of the Royal Court building. It is this question which, to me, forms the central argument of the piece. Are the two states equatable, representing two sides of the same coin? Or is this a false connection, created by a world which doesn’t want us to believe goodness comes from courage?
There are a lot of these dichotomies in The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas; debates about goodness versus cowardice, truth versus lies, choice versus destiny and nature versus nurture all find themselves embedded somewhere in Kelly’s text, with most of these opposites shown to a greater or lesser extent to be pretty much the same thing.
But it seems fairly obvious to me that goodness and cowardice are not the same thing (but then I would say that, wouldn’t I, believing myself to be a good person without wanting to accept I’m a potential coward). There’s definitely something in Kelly’s provocation, but it feels too easy and is – as far as I’m concerned – a dangerous suggestion. I’m aware it’s probably Kelly’s intention to evoke this reaction, but it doesn’t feel enough to me to simply say that the world can be a Bad Place with Bad People – we know that. I also wonder whether there’s a slight chickening out in the final moments, as [SPOILER ALERT] Gorge’s grandson decides not to kill him, suggesting that in actual fact lies and dishonesty can get you somewhere and that there’ll be very few repercussions [END OF SPOILER].
But I guess my main problem is that the text – in conjunction with the production – isn’t really that theatrically engaging. After the interesting and involving opening sequence – which sees the seven-strong cast merely recounting the first few years of Mastromas’ life whilst sat on chairs, picking up cues speedily and hurtling through the most important moments of our protagonist’s early years – the rest of the story is told through four rather slow, rather undramatic scenes. There’s clearly a point to this pacing – Kelly’s text really does highlight how our lives are a series of important moments – but there are times when I could have done with a bit less talk and a bit more action. Similarly, the opening sequence seems to be setting up some far more interesting pay-off regarding the nature/nurture question, but it’s difficult to pull apart how Gorge’s earlier actions have much of an impact on his later ones.
There’s something admirable about Featherstone’s decision to let the scenes play out, however, before wrenching our attention back during some slick scene changes, a platform moving backwards and forwards as the ‘truth’ of this story becomes more and less focussed. The main feature of Tom Scutt’s set is a towering wooden scaffold, which is essentially a proscenium-in-reverse, hinting at the idea that the whole of Mastromas’ life is merely a scam created for the theatre. The dull functionality of earlier scenes moves towards a semi-apocalyptic aesthetic after the interval, painting us a picture of our own potential trajectory.
The (all-white) cast are at their peak when really given license to play with the text, during the narrative sections of the play. Here, they come alive and inject humour into Kelly’s sometimes stodgy writing, hurtling the narrative forward where elsewhere it falters. In the scenes themselves, it is the two female members of the ensemble – Pippa Haywood and Kate O’Flynn – who really shine, investing in the characters and their scenes so thoroughly that they mean something. Tom Brooke manages the amazing feat of allowing us to see a young man growing old, but the other actors don’t have quite enough time on stage to allow any real connection.
Dennis Kelly’s most interesting decision feels to me to have happened way back in the writing process, when he decided to do a theatrical biography of a fictional man who wrote a fictional biography, which at a simple level is a gorgeous, slightly insane and properly interesting idea. Unfortunately, later decisions don’t come off quite as well, with a fragmented narrative and simplified political critique failing to really say something about this original excavation of ‘truth’ as a concept. There aren’t many parallels between play and production beyond Scutt’s mock-proscenium and Philip Gladwell’s knowingly false lighting, and the links between Kelly’s choice of form and the questions he throws up are hard to unpick in Featherstone’s production. There’s no denying that there’s a lot going on in The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, but somehow it just doesn’t do enough to warrant the long running time and elongated scenes. Maybe I was spoilt by Secret Theatre earlier on in the week, but the probing questions Kelly sets out to interrogate fizzle out before they become really interesting, meaning that ultimately the play and Featherstone’s production don’t really tell us anything we don’t already know in the pits of our potentially good but potentially cowardly little hearts.