When first written in 1993, The Treatment was a satirical play, one that skewered notions of soulless suits invading the turf of artistic endeavour and, with some prescience, prising reality from ordinary people and grafting it into fiction to create screen sensations. Now, however, in this production at least, it seems more like a clinical documentary, charting the demise of society through greed, corruption and self-interest. Apart from the occasional shock the narrative contains, though, there is little to catch and retain attention.
While a rose by any other name may swell as sweet, names of plays matter and can affect the experience of seeing them. Martin Crimp is no slouch when it comes to naming his plays and The Treatment is an exemplar in that respect.
On the one hand, the title refers to the one page summary of a new film that the voracious facilitators, Jennifer and Andrew, want to create from the true life story of shattered, uncertain Anne and the musings of Clifford, a former Broadway author shunned by the Uber-glamourous world of show-business. Equally, though, the title reflects the terrible way the commissioning and production system treats both Anne and Clifford.
But there is a wider sense in which the title illuminates the text: this is a play which examines the way woman/man treats woman/man, and that covers waiter/patron interactions as well as husband/wife, employer/employee and star/producer as well as sundry others. It’s a snapshot of a certain part of the artistic world, covering many of the players, from fodder to emerging star.
Crimp doesn’t stop there though. The Treatment is a kind of trap: how any given director and cast treat the play is also part of Crimp’s interests. Watching Lyndsey Turner’s production, now playing at the Almeida, one can’t help feeling that Crimp’s trap has been sprung: listless, without drive and pace, and unquestionably dull, this version of The Treatment seems like a fossil when it ought pulse with acidic vinegar and fierce humour.
Partly, this is down to the subdued palette of the corridors of power in Giles Cadle’s set design. Yes, if you have been to the great offices of broadcasters or film companies, the sense of greyness and minimalism is familiar – but does it say anything in particular to the citizens of 2017? Some scenes feel like they might have been part of a fashionable Ivo Van Hove production, but, actually, that simply diminishes their power in this context. The subways and back streets make not much sense as realistic problem spots – they are too clean and functional.
The inclusion of numbers of ambling supernumeraries adds nothing to the sense of drama or even the sense of the city. These Community Performers do nothing but distract; they certainly don’t create a sense of impersonal crowd movement, or even the self-obsessed hustle and bustle of commuters. What they do achieve, sadly, is a real disconnection from the moment Crimp is exploring in whatever scene they intrude upon. This is down to Turner’s use of them, rather than their innate abilities.
Some of the central performances intrigue, but insufficiently given the material. Julian Ovenden as Andrew fares best of all, mastering the many complex facets of what seems at first a shallow, tiresome, parasitic and adulterous movie guru. He manages to convince as glib lothario and then further convince as lost Romeo, surprised by the depth of his feelings for a woman he was willing to rape (metaphorically at least, literally probably) even though the world will treat him differently for his choice of her. He is repellant and vulnerable; genuinely fascinating.
Also in quite superb form is Ian Gelder, whose broken, penniless, and desperate writer Clifford finds both salvation and damnation as a result of administrative happenstance and the oily opportunism of Jennifer and Andrew. The bizarre scenes with the blind taxi driver (a gleeful Ben Onwuke) work curiously well, even if the metaphor of the blind leading the blind is a trifle heavy-handed. Gelder is central to more than one moment of visceral horror and he makes them work very well.
As a long-suffering waitress at a too too divine Japanese culinary hot spot, Hara Yannas gives a taut portrait of harried servility, of abused pseudo-familiarity. She is terrific. When she appears as a silver polish swigging pregnant unfortunate, Yannas is almost unrecognisable, repellent and sad in equal measure. Equally, Ellora Torchia in good form as the abused admin assistant who uses every opportunity she has to make her way in the film world, adhering, like a limpet mine, to the demands of established bankable star, John (a tepid Gary Beadle).
But there are three characters central to Crimp’s dystopian (or literally accurate, perhaps both) take on the trench warfare that is Filmland and it is with these characters – Anne, Simon and Jennifer – that Turner scores lowly. Since Crimp’s play was written, films such as For Your Consideration or Ed Wood and television series such as 30 Rock have pushed along the sense of extreme characters in a satirical entertainment world. So the trio in The Treatment, to really work properly today, need to have real edge.
The most lacklustre performance comes from Indira Varma whose Jennifer is vapid and tiring. Jennifer is a character who could do with some of the steel and vigour that Varma displays so effortlessly in Game Of Thrones, but there is no sign of it here. Like a kind of vicious Barbie, with oddly tousled hair, Varma’s Jennifer spits out lines, but there is no grounded eccentricity, no flame of aggression, no surprise attributes. Her Jennifer is predictable and, ultimately, draining.
Aisling Loftus makes a fragile and opaque Anne, and is most impressive in describing her relationship with her probably psychotic partner, Simon, and then in demonstrating the frightening reality of that relationship. Loftus has a shimmeringly intense style which works brilliantly on screen but is less comprehensible on stage. Vocally, she does not project clearly enough, and some of the detail of her performance is lost on its journey into the auditorium.
It’s much the same with Matthew Needham’s tightly coiled but ultimately amoral Simon. In the moments of stark violence, he is grippingly scary but the role requires that to be a facet of the character simmering under the surface all the time not just in the obvious moments. Nevertheless, Needham does make the character a intriguing one, albeit not really the character Crimp’s narrative suggests.
In the end, the production does not really ascend the heights Crimp’s play really requires. The experience of seeing the play ought to be shocking, startling and fearful. Turner’s production feels too cosy, too complacent to achieve the satirical heights it should.
A missed opportunity. Interesting but not incendiary.