Review: The Low Road, Royal Court
Published on Culture Wars, 31.03.2013
Would that all of Dominic Cooke’s Downstairs seasons had the invention of his last. After four years of concrete, real-world settings – from woodland clearings to country houses and sitting room after sitting room – his final Downstairs programme is marked by its kaleidoscopic formal panache. Caryl Churchill’s machine-gunning Love and Information, Martin Crimp’s trippy triptych In the Republic of Happiness, and now this sprawling faux-Brechtian epic from Bruce Norris. Unshackled from sales targets, Cooke seems to be running around Sloane Square with a can of spray paint. About time too.
Norris has somewhat defined Cooke’s tenure, kickstarting the middle class manifesto with The Pain and the Itch and delivering one of its biggest hits in Clybourne Park. Perhaps, as Cooke departs, he ushers in a new direction: straight-talking, all-out diabtribe. There’s nothing needling about The Low Road. Norris has swapped his lethal injections for a bazooka aimed at nothing less than capitalism itself.
Before us stands Adam Smith (Bill Patterson) – yes, the Adam Smith – giving a lecture that springs to life. Before him stands Jim Trumpett – little Trump, one might say – an 18th Century lad of 17 with a head for business and a heart of stone. Abandoned as a baby by one G. Washington – another G. Washington, also of Virginia; not that it stops him claiming familial ties – Jim scams his way to the top, bartering and brokering to his advantage, and always skimming a bit of the top for himself. Soon, he’s earned enough to buy a slave, discounted because he’s deaf, and off Trumpett trots with John Blanke in tow.
Only Blanke ain’t deaf and he ain’t best pleased to be enslaved, being, as he is, the Earl of Rivington, and, not for the first or the last time, Jim finds himself at gunpoint, turfing over his cash and carriable goods. Yet, time and again, Jim finds himself bailed out, by charitable down-and-outcasts, by wealthy patrons, by corrupt judges. He’s bright enough –or rather useful and well-connected enough – to merit a leg-up back onto the ladder.
Of course, Jim is one hell of an Aunt Sally, so blantant is his disregard, even his disdain, for those around him. And yet, it’s hard to argue with the basic logic underpinning his fair trade philosophy: of mutually satisfied handshakes, rewarded endeavour and acuity, and the elevation of consumer choice. If ever a striver existed, Jim Trumpett was he and, in striving, he and his fellow free marketers believe they’re shaping a better world for all.
The part, however, needs more quicksilver charisma than Johnny Flynn can muster. Jim needs to be persuasive, to sell not only his bonds, but also his argument. This is a part for a front-footed actor, a Kyle Soller or a David Dawson. Flynn is too Californian for this protean Wall Streeter. He panics where he needs to command; flaps rather than flickers. Looking back, I can’t recall a single ‘choice’ he’s made.
Because, of course, his argument crumbles faced with reality. Black slaves and the disabled scupper the argument, but so too do workers and consumers. Eventually – increasingly – that theoretical equality of opportunity tends towards actual inequality. Starting points deviate with each subsequent generation and, though, yes, the wealthiest help pull up the bottom rung of the ladder, they climb out of sight as they do so. A bravura flash-forward to the present, where Jim’s ancestor sits in smug self-justification at an economic conference, settle the issue: in helping myself, I help others, but with others thus helped, I have to help myself even more. Competitive advantage is key and – this being its undoing – it spirals ever upwards. Jim’s final courtroom cry, ‘blame the markets’ – foolish though it looks as an excuse for his reckless self-regard – has more merit than any of us would like to credit it.
Now Norris is not reinventing the wheel in this. No one will come out of The Low Road and immediately occupy the Natwest opposite. However, sometimes we all need a bit of plain speaking and Norris uses such ardent and inescapably blunt terms that its hard for any of us to wriggle away. We’ll all glance in the mirror afterwards. True, the whole feels thin; a well-argued ‘Capitalism: boo’ that bashes one note, rather than layering up chords, but that’s a fault of the form – a picaresque fable, like Mother Courage or Candide – and it could be argued that Norris is deliberately looking backwards, slowing us down, in keeping with his argument. Nonetheless, it’s hard to leave singing about a play that has so few sparks flying out.
Yet, The Low Road’s strongest suit is its flavour and flair. How often do you see characters and scenes like this? It’s Brecht laced with irony, knowingly oversold, and Norris revels in the ye-olde language, liberally peppering it with contemporary expletives. There’s a swashbuckling brio to The Low Road and Tom Pye’s elegant and economical designs match it for gusto. If the play lacks a sense of careful assembly, Cooke’s direction reinserts some with its doubling; so Harry Peacock’s slave trader buys back his slave in another guise and Simon Paisley Day’s smug characters are always tethered to the mentally disabled Poor Tim. However, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith takes the acting laurels – not that it’s a competition – lending Jim Blanke an effortless commanding dignity, even if, in doing so, he so trumps Flynn’s Trumpett that defence’s case crumbles.