Sunday, 4 January 2009

august: osage county (w. tracy letts, d. anna d shapiro)

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Thus ends this three and a half piece of drama, employing possibly the most portentous line of anglo-saxon twentieth century poetry, in the mouth of a native american indian, the words being sung to the distraught learesque matriach as she finally comes to terms with her isolation on the great plains of america.

The play opens with Eliot as well, as Beverly, the patriarch, (so say the cast notes), talks to the same native american indian, the homely Johnna, about his work and offers her a job as housekeeper in his old, three storied home. 'The last thing one discovers in composing a work' Eliot also wrote (a rapid google search reveals), 'is what to put first'. August: Osage County seems to have put its beginning firmly at the beginning. This is going to be a big play about poetry, the american soul, and last, but not least, the great american play. 

Which is where the problems begin. Osage knows exactly what it's about: what it doesn't know is how to weld these notions into a comprehensive piece of theatre. Length alone does not stature grant. (Wild Bill Hickock). Neither does a solid agenda. Just because you write a play with three sisters set in the sticks doesn't mean you're making Chekhov. (Lou Reed)

Which isn't to say that Letts can't write. There's a great deal of snappy dialogue and one-liners which wouldn't go amiss on Frasier. However, the increasing tendency to resort to a joke as the play ploughs on into the night eventually seems to indicate a lack of faith in the weight of the material as much as a handy comic turn of phrase. The acting likewise seems to suffer from a lack of clarity over which furrow is, in point of fact, being ploughed - light hearted family drama or eviscerating examination of the american malaise? The tendency of the script to throw in moments where characters lament the way that america has changed and is no longer the place it used to be help neither the actors nor the audience.

Some might see these tonal inconsistencies as a strength, and the audience seemed to be lapping it up, so maybe I've missed something. Osage isn't unenjoyable, it's just not particularly powerful or moving, and fails to live up to the agenda it appears to be setting for itself. One feature of the play, above all, seemed to encapsulate this. That opening scene indicated a drama exploring the divisions between a european america and the native american one that existed before it: and the way in which america the land creates inclusivity (or not) for all those people who have lived off it. However, rather bizarrely, as the play unfolds, Johnna is given nothing to do, and no dramatic weight. Indeed, her role as cleaner, cook and housekeeper is mirrored in the staging: when a fold-up mattress needs to be moved offstage, it's Johnna who does it. The ambition of including a native american in the drama seems like it will prove to be elucidatory, but in the end Letts has no more idea of what to do with the character than the European immigrants have known what to do with the peoples they have displaced, and Johnna's presence feels tokenistic at best and exploitative at worst. Having her sing Eliot's lines at the end feels like a cheap trick rather than a piece of theatrical nuance.

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