at the Almeida Theatre, Friday 13th December 2013
*Originally written for Exeunt*
Considering the way Bret Easton Ellis’ novel comments on the nature of criticism in the twentieth century, there’s something rather ironic about my penning of thisAmerican Psycho review. Patrick Bateman has about as much knowledge of eighties’ popular music as I do of contemporary theatre, making neither of us experts but giving just enough to go on.
To this extent, the musical of American Psycho (co-produced by Headlong with Act 4 Entertainment) can boast that it bats off its own criticisms by acknowledging and relishing their inevitable subjectivity. Thankfully, it never drops into the cyclical downward spirals to which this self-reflexive postmodern thought process could potentially lead. Instead, it manages to spin upwards, constantly surprising and getting right to the heart of the endemic problems within late capitalism.
It’s first worth saying that this musical version, directed by Rupert Goold with music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik and a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, doesn’t quite manage to offer the searing commentary and bleak drama of Ellis’ 1991 work; where the novel form gave us an insight into the mind of its serial-killer protagonist, the communal aspect of theatre and its lack of specific focus means we lose some of the ideas about fiction, reality and rugged individualism.
That said, however, The Musical is the perfect form for this thriller about (literal) cut-throat capitalism. Many – including myself – believe the form to often embody all of the worst aspects of the modern world. John Bull’s suggestion that “the musical is ideologically conservative and creatively reactionary, both paradigm and cause of a theatre of escapism and nostalgia” folds back on itself here, as Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing understands the futility of objectivity and the brutalising effects of consumer capitalism. “I have a severely impaired capacity to feel” says Matt Smith’s Patrick Bateman, both victim and perpetrator of a dangerously individualistic view of the world. He is a man who recognises his own insanity, and the moments of distant clarity (“She annoyed me so I crucified her with a nail gun”) point towards a being who has managed to lose all serious connection with the world around him.
Duncan Sheik’s music and lyrics encompass a wide array of styles and ideas, moving from mid-naughties Daft Punk-y nostalgia in “Clean” and “Cards” to late-eighties campery in “Hardbody” and saccharine twentieth century musical in “A Girl Before”. At some points, the lyrics are sometimes a little more impressive than the music, but eclectic, genre-melding songs like “I Am Back” and the use of Bateman’s playlist (including a strangely gorgeous rendition of “In The Air Tonight”) mean that this musical is one which truly uses the style of its music to comment on the questions raised. Similarly, Lynne Page’s choreography shows us both sensual, drug-fuelled club dancing and machismo one-upmanship in a way which explodes and supports the score.
Goold’s production contains within it all the stylishness and theatricality we expect from his work, housed within Es Devlin’s deceptively simple design. Here, we become Bateman’s confidants, as Smith takes us with him in a quest to make his violent actions seem comprehensible, as we see and – crucially – hear how the world sounds to him. The staging is often cold and clinical, and succeeds in making us feel nothing as the protagonist hacks through his victims, but elsewhere, like during “If We Get Married”, we get uncompromising emotion alongside wily pastiche. Devlin’s modish forced-perspective design, with two walls of video tapes on either side surrounded by rotating dials reminiscent of a Swiss clock and standing for the repetitions of history, hones in on the singular man on stage – Patrick Bateman – with the claustrophobic size of the Almeida managing to draw focus as he speak-sings his ruminations about the world around him. A particularly intelligent touch has all food and drinks orders spoken via a microphone throughout, the voices of these cackling yuppies and their criminal diets booming through Paul Arditti’s sound design accompanied by synthy electro-pop.
The cast performs a particular kind of Brechtian distancing and just like their yuppie counterparts never quite inhabit a pure “character”. Bateman’s nemesis Paul Owen, for example (played with wry knowingness by Ben Aldridge), seems to orbit around the main story without ever getting truly involved, whilst Susannah Fielding’s performance as the anti-hero’s long-term girlfriend Evelyn floats just out of reach, so that we never quite grasp who she is. The only supporting character we ever really get to know is Cassandra Compton’s Jean, and even then her solo comes across as unreal. I’d have liked to have seen more from Simon Gregor’s Detective Kimball, who is more of a presence in the novel, but he nonetheless gives Matt Smith’s searching, neurotic Bateman a run for his money.
This production of American Psycho is open to the same criticisms which met Ellis’ original novel; “it’s vapid”, “it’s stylised”, “it’s distant”. But this musical version is above that, and though we may want to feel and see a bit more, it is imperative that we can digest and comprehend what’s going on. Bateman’s narration both here and in the novel never lets us lose sight of where we are, and importantly explains things in such a way that the ramifications are clear (if not to himself).
There are a plethora of creative moments from Goold which accompany fantastic lines from Sheik and Aguirre-Sacasa, but it is in the final moments that they coalesce, bringing in references about late capitalism from Fukuyama, Fisher and Harvey. This artificial, consumer-driven, anti-historical, culturally moribund, violently individualistic story is “not an allegory…Or a vague ‘perhaps’”. It’s real. It exists.
-Incidentally, I’ve just finished Peter Mountford’s A Young Man’s Guide To Late Capitalism, which tells the story of a late-twentysomething working in investment banking who succumbs to the logic of neoliberal thought. It strikes me that Ellis’ novel could well have the same title on its cover-
Photo: Tristram Kenton