Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Hotel, National Theatre

Review: Hotel, National Theatre

Polly Stenham burst onto the scene, aged 19, with her debut play, That Face. She comes very close to bursting right out of it again, aged 27, with her fourth, which, for the sake of cutting right to the chase, we’ll call ‘Black Face.’

There’s nothing wrong with the play’s central gesture. Hotel is like a Polly Stenham play that hits a mine. In a good way. A white, upper-middle class family is lolling around a luxury resort off the Kenyan coast. Unresolved tensions abound: Vivienne (Hermione Gulliford) has had to resign from cabinet on account of her husband’s sexual indiscretion online and, to make matters worse, their teenage son Ralph (Tom Rhys Harries) has just owned up to setting a honey trap.

All this tees up the sort of taut, warped family drama that Stenham does so well, when – out of nowhere – she plunges us into a full-blown, all-out, lives-on-the-line hostage situation. There are gunshots. There are flammable chemicals. There are matches. Chambermaid Nala (Susan Wokoma) reveals her true purposes and, in an instant, subaltern recrimination obliterates marital friction and teenage misdemeanours. Another alternative title: ‘#FirstWorldProblems.’ Or maybe just ‘Blasted 2: This Time It’s Post-Colonial.’

Hotel makes its point like a dum-dum bullet and that point absolutely warrants making. Stenham bulldozes through any possibility of wilful Western blindness. She makes it impossible to ignore the world beyond our own privileged viewpoint, forcing us face to face with our own complicity in the problems of others, continents away. Her first plot is a series of canny analogies too: driven by questions of indirect or contactless responsibility. The spectre of virtual incest becomes a fascinating reflection of our place in global inequalities; accusations of sabotage pointedly encapsulate Western entitlement; even the parenting styles – one hands off, the other fawning – sync with attitudes to developing nations. In Maria Ahberg’s production and Naomi Dawson’s design their hotel room is whiter than white, pristine and unmuddied. An air-con unit ensures the air is as rarefied as their their Chelsea vowels. The children, superbly played by Rhys Harries and Shannon Tarbet, seem to float, as if slightly high on life, ungrounded and above it all.

Brilliant to see all that smashed apart, not least because Stenham so commits to the gear-shift that she refuses to resolve the original loose ends. She catches the way that terrorism rips through the fabric of normality – but she also overstretches herself in the process, piling implausibility on implausibility. Rum plotting sees characters manoeuvred like figurines. OTT twists get her in a tangle and, well, a hectoring play with a hostage situation is still a hectoring play.

You can’t overlook these knots, but abundant ambition makes them forgivable. What’s harder to dismiss is the nagging doubt that Hotel isn’t just a little bit racist. There’s a sense that Stenham is, um, ‘writing black’ with Nala, who speaks like a spoken word artist with a PhD in post-colonial studies: “It’s the same old colonial shit, just dressed in the shiny drag of free market capitalism, eyes hard and dull as teeth.” Her accomplice is a trigger-happy, pagan crack-addict, while the other black roles – mostly unspeaking – are just one big burst of violence, a device to push proceedings onto another lever.

Beneath this are overarching aesthetic questions: Should a play about post-colonial attitudes so subjugate its African characters to its white British protagonist ‘victims’? Can one pluck any point of contention – the unregulated trade of harmful pesticides – and use it as an arbitrary illustration on which to hang an entire play? Equally, I can’t help but wonder whether Stenham’s point really best served by a thriller that teeters towards torture porn? Blasted sought to be unstomachable, to really run its audience through the wringer in a bid to shine a light on the precariousness of Western privilege. Hotel isn’t and doesn’t. It’s gory, but most definitely gripping.

You can’t help but ask, What came first: idea or convinction? Truth be told, it feels like the former. In one pre-publicity interview, which I read afterwards, Stenham remembers conceiving Hotel on holiday in St Lucia: “I suddenly realised there was something kind of absurd about where we were. You holiday in these incredibly beautiful places but they’re very poor and sometimes very dangerous. The post-colonial arrogance of it is amazing. It’s a stage set, you know? Fabulously rich dramatically.”

Those last three words encapsulate the play’s discomfort. It becomes clearer and clearer that the writer isn’t concerned by authenticity and Hotel seems a play dreamed up poolside, while idly wondering about the world outside. All those implausibilities point to an ivory tower and, given the nature of the subject, that feels deeply exploitative in itself.

Photograph: Kwame Lestrade

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