Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The Pain and The Itch (w. Bruce Norris; d. Domininc Cooke)

Whose pain and whose itch? Questions which one suspects the writer and indeed director would like to be at least hovering around the theatre.

There's some very witty dialogue in Bruce Norris's piece. He writes with a sense of un-self-censored freedom, and the lines explode around the stage like little bundles of fun. The laughs are regular, and as the press suggests, infectious. The Pain and the Itch is also an artfully constructed piece, not a scatter-gun attack on modern mores. As the play comes to a conclusion the origins of Kayla's vaginal itch are neatly elaborated; the cause of the taxi driver's persistence succinctly resolved; a kind of family unity achieved. The play's structure is less comedy or farce than Murder Mystery. The taxi driver is a kind of 21st century Poirot, excavating the events of the night to uncover the hidden truth.

All of which is both extremely clever and also highly entertaining. Which might just be the play's Achilles Heel. The director, Dominic Cooke, who generates fine performances and conducts Norris's dialogue with suitable vigour, has been quoted as saying that he wants the Royal Court to move away from a voyeuristic kitchen sink approach and use the stage as a mirror to reflect and discomfort the audience. And one can see how The Pain and The Itch, an apparently scathing attack on liberal-western-upper-middle-mores might fit into this remit.

Yet, I felt, that the very neatness and confidence of the theatrical experience in some way helped to let the audience off the hook. Leaving aside the fact that it's not hard for a liberal British audience to laugh at and feel little connection with the fault-lines of the liberal US - in fact rather satisfying - it seemed as though the play's qualities in themselves may have been working against its intentions. The Pain and The Itch has all the attributes of the modern Western piece, it wears its cleverness on its sleeve, loose ends tied up, a highly efficient work of art. Whether that structure allows the pain that underlies this piece to see the light of day seems questionable. The pain which is not Kayla's itch, but the death of the taxi driver's wife, and by implication, the other needless deaths which US foreign policy has engendered in recent years. The only time this came through was when the taxi driver turned on his wife's de facto killer and said calmly - 'That is why you kill people', a moment when the man had to confront the fact that his whole way of life was tied up in the actions of the democracy he participated in, with the consequences that democracy has imposed on other people in other lands.

The Pain and The Itch is a great piece of writing. It's staged well. It's does a lot of things brilliantly. The question is whether it does all the things it sets itself up to do. If it doesn't, at least it's laying down some kind of road map showing the extent of what a play can do, and the directions it might have to go in if the Court is serious in its intentions to hold the mirror up to the life of its well-heeled audience.

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