Whilst always a welcome promoter of new writing and new experiments in theatre, more recently The Royal Court's choice of programme has been called divisive at best and pretentious at worst – the need to be shown to 'get it or get out' has made many think that it's in danger of closing its audience net far too tightly to survive.
The sort of production that makes me think The Royal Court is getting back on track.
With Anthony Neilson's reportedly semi-improvised, unscripted, constantly evolving Unreachable, the approach may still challenge the norm, but at its simplest it is actually shining a torch at the pretentiousness that can come when one exists only within the self-important pretence of acting. And it does so in such an involving and unpretentious manner as to be hilariously enjoyable – even if it is raising a finger to anyone who tries to prove their own intelligence by searching for its deeper meaning.
We've seen similar tales as the plot itself – neurotic, orphaned, film director only exists and suffers for his art, as he tries to find his "unreachable light" in order to make his film truly worthwhile. All around him are the usual suspects for an unchallenging plot – the overly mothering producer, the controlling investor, the jealous 'second in command', the dangerous star and the talented leading lady. They jostle around his own light as he struggles to create real art and continuously looks for ways to delay the production of his own (seemingly poor sci-if) script, in order to do so.
(Which as a plot line has echoes of actors who recently took an assumedly acceptable political platform to 'save their art'.)
But what Neilson has done here is to use this whole premise – and indeed his whole creation process - as a way of satirising the world in which it is set, and in which we as the audience are sitting. From leading actress Natasha's emotional opening speech of sacrifice and madness (a fantastically layered performance by Tamara Lawrence) that later gets punctured by her saying that it's just acting and if you want her "to feel something, fucking pay me"; to Matt Smith's (very Dr Who resonant) director Maxim's clowning as he speaks with a real moth (that happened to appear this night) and comedy-straining to push a case that's clearly not heavy; and Jonjo O'Neill's brilliant panto-villain, audience-bating (possibly ad libbed?) bad actor, Ivan (bad meaning psychotic, sexist and racist as well as 'ham'); we are never allowed to to believe these characters are really real.
With each scene introduced by an audible "Act X, Scene X, Action", props being labelled to show us what they are pretending to be and stagehands interacting with the actors to change the set and costumes, this is truly reminiscent of what Brecht would be doing if he were alive today (oddly more so than the current production of Brecht's own Threepenny Opera at the National right now). It's probably satirical, possibly deep, but definitely funny – and you can choose to take from it what you wish without feeling unintelligent or patronised.
Much has been made of the previews for the show where scripts were brought on as actors lost their lines, corpsed, things went wrong and the audience were invited to comment and help the devising process. Many people left in the interval. Many then got free return tickets. Many posted their strong opinions of social media. I can't help but think this has been a great PR exercise and that you need to know this as being a part of the play – like they have used social media in the way of a preview teaser for a film. It really adds to the experience (until it has a long run of course) as everything feels like it's fresh and may be new every night (there isn't a script as it's 'always changing' – though the cynic in me thinks that could be a marketing ploy too).
Within this context, we don't mind that the actors smirk occasionally – it's like they're letting us in. We don't mind that there's an occasional stumble or two over lines – they're just reminding us that they are just actors. None of this hinders – it's making it clear that this is pure escapism in the theatre; not always having to be important but not having to be simple either.
I imagine many regular Court patrons may think there's a deeper meaning here – whilst others may berate its lack of depth. I think that is exactly the point so just enjoy it for being actors having fun, inviting us along for the ride, whilst giving us something to think about if we want to. In fact, when they do veer too far towards the 'meaningful' towards the end, it felt out of place by being too 'expected'. The casting of Smith still seems to bring a new and young audience to venues off Shaftesbury Avenue and this alone is excellent reason for his casting (and he also has a very watchable nature on stage) – in the sort of production that makes me think The Royal Court is getting back on track. By far the best thing I have seen in The Jerwood Downstairs in a very long time.