Review: Show 4, Lyric Hammersmith
Published in The Telegraph, 14.02.2014
Another round of guess the play, courtesy of the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre season. This time, there’s a Jacobean tang from the get go; it’s in the social order, a Machiavellian principality, and in the florid verbosity. There are whiffs of incest and infidelity in the air and a spoilt, sociopathic son and heir. Sharper theatre-spotters than me will identify John Webster’s The White Devil hiding beneath a contemporary facelift by young playwright Hayley Squires.
Retitled Glitterland, Webster’s revenge tragedy becomes a thick slice of slick pulp fiction, pitched somewhere between Frank Miller’s Sin City and the ganglands of Guy Ritchie films. It’s the sort of place where everyone’s name ends in an “o” – Ludo, Milo, Franco – and where men in spic suits chuck somersaulting insults at each other. “You clandestine peasant,” spits one; “you curdled cock,” comes the reply.
Head honcho is Hammed Animashaun’s Ciano, whose every whim is sorted by his self-serving civil servant fixer Nemo (Leo Bill). What Ciano wants, he gets – and right now, he wants the Hollywood superstarlet Victoria (Katherine Pearce) and her Marilyn Monroe looks. Marriage – both his and hers – is no obstacle. Spouses can be dispatched…
Squires gives us a world where surface appearances have eroded reality. Art is propaganda, always reassuringly beautiful, and everyone’s constantly dosed up – “loose-limbed and head-vacant” – on acid tabs that trigger momentary fits. Glitterland’s society is stage-managed and spun. Its politicians have become entertainers – Animashaun interrupts a press conference with an a capella R’n'B turn – and its entertainers like Nadia Albina’s spivvy film director, politicians. No wonder this place treats women as sex objects, discarding those whose looks fade and those that speak up to a cooped-up countryside exile.
It’s all fiercely imaginative stuff, even if Squires settles for a straightforward adaptation after threatening a radical overhaul. Ellen McDougall directs a plosive, percussive production that keeps you right on edge, but it’s missing the social specificity that Nick Hytner or Rupert Goold can draw out. Lizzie Powell’s intricate lighting makes Hyemi Shin’s plain grey studio a maze of shadowy corridors, perfect for subterfuge and surveillance and it’s never less than compelling – not least with Leo Bill’s spidery, slippery Nemo motoring proceedings. On form and off the leash, there isn’t a show in the world Bill wouldn’t improve.
But Glitterland’s all rather posturing, even outright vain, and by playing everything so cool, the company risks utter hypocrisy. You keep waiting for a moment that smashes the whole show apart to critique its own style, but nothing ever turns up. Without that self-awareness, Glitterland’s as seductive and surface as the world it condemns.
Photograph: Helen Maybanks