The Theatreguide.London Review
Arcola Theatre Winter-Spring 2012
Comedians honour a joke-to-end-all-jokes called The Aristocrats whose point is to fill the telling with all the obscene, perverted, scatological, diseased imagery the teller can come up with and then top it with a punchline.
Philip Ridley's 1991 drama is not gratuitously offensive, and its extreme and upsetting content serves a strong and legitimate purpose. But as its seemingly unending catalogue of shocking and disturbing images grows, you may find yourself thinking of The Aristocrats.
Presley and Haley are adult brother and sister living an almost agoraphobic life because they have never really progressed beyond childhood traumas. (Ridley here echoes Tennessee Williams's Out Cry, just as elsewhere he will footnote Ionesco, Genet, Albee and others; he's clearly well-read, but he wears his erudition comfortably.)
They justify their isolation with her accounts of feral dogs and his nightmares involving mass murder, toxic waste, flaying alive and nuclear war, and when not anaesthetising themselves with drugs they actually take comfort from imagining that Outside has been reduced to a post-nuclear wasteland. They're briefly joined by outsider Cosmo, another dweller on the fringes of society, who earns his living eating insects in freak shows and has tales of his own to share.
Essentially the play consists of the three characters taking turns describing horrible experiences, imaginings or nightmares – a fourth, almost silent character is disturbing just by his physical presence – with Ridley's fertile imagination and extraordinary fluency with disturbing language and dark imagery creating a sense of life defined by the dreadful and disgusting.
And then Ridley tops them with a demonstration of simple, quiet, almost ordinary human inhumanity.
It is because we have been almost numbed by the horrible narratives that the onstage act – which is symbolic and neither bloody nor violent but somehow all the more obscene for that – has the power Ridley gives it, and his vision – that real life and real human behaviour can be far worse than anything we can imagine – so disturbingly convincing.
So this is not a play for the faint-hearted, though I repeat that very little happens onstage that you'd want to close your eyes to – it's almost all in the pictures Ridley forces into your head.
I've stressed Ridley's role because this is very much a writer's, even a poet's play, and really all you can ask of a director is that he stay out of its way. Edward Dick has done more than that by guiding his actors to exactly the right level of near-hysteria while not permitting them to draw attention away from the words.
Chris New (Presley), Mariah Gale (Haley) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Cosmo) each deliver their set pieces effectively while creating around the monologues a sense of real people in extraordinary circumstances.
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