The Donmar Warehouse can be a very frustrating place – at least under Josie Rourke. Some of the material Rourke programmes is ambitious and worthy; some is boring and trite, to the point where it is unimaginable that a professional theatre company would see any value in staging it. Worse, perhaps, sometimes an excellent designer is permitted to produce a set design parts of which, where pivotal action occurs, cannot be seen by everyone in the tiny auditorium. Yet, those seated in those seats are never told their view is restricted and there is no discount in price relative to a seat in the same area with an unrestricted view.
Sometimes, a production manages to offend on both accounts.
So it is with Dominic Cooke’s production of Teddy Ferrara, written by Christopher Shinn, which is now playing at the Donmar Warehouse. It’s an excruciatingly dull play and its two most dramatic moments occur on a balcony which is unable to be viewed from about a quarter of the seats in the stalls. It’s mystifying that the play is being staged, and even more mystifying that it is being staged this way.
Shinn’s play is about urgent and important matters. It takes as its starting place an horrific real life event – where a student at a College in the USA secretly filmed his roommate engaging in sexual intimacy with another man and then published the footage online. The gay student, who was not “out”, killed himself. In itself, this ghastly scenario is enough upon which to build a great play. But Shinn does not confine himself to that scenario and all of its rich complications.
He adds in campus politics, the question of bisexuality, commitment issues in gay relationships, control issues in gay relationships, the rights and wrongs of casual sex, the rights and wrongs of sex in public toilets, the sexual issues confronted by those with disabilities, right-wing gay attitudes, transgender issues, campus journalism, communication by text and all that carries with it, betrayal and honesty in gay relationships and, pretty much, every stereotype about the portrayal of gay characters in drama that could be imagined.
The result is so worthy it is suffocating.
None of the difficult issues get proper consideration; too much time is devoted to triviality. None of the characters are likeable or particularly deserving of sympathy; all of them are self-obsessed, difficult, willing to do anything for their own gratification, ambition or needs.
The titular character, Teddy, is meant to be a new student, but he looks much older. He is written as “weird” and played “very weird”. It’s not just that he is shambolic and shy; at times he seems mentally challenged. At least in his real-life interactions. He has an online life too, one where he seems more confidant, more popular – where he is happy to masturbate over the Internet for the gratification of others. It is this character whose roommate secretly films him and it is this character who commits suicide. Exactly why he does that is unclear.
Of course, one can never know why one person chooses to end their own life and if Shinn’s play has a message, that is it.
The play might be called Terry Ferrara but it is not about Terry Ferrara. Rather, it is primarily about two good looking gay men and their on-off relationship. Gabe is thinking about running for Campus President, following in the footsteps of his straight best friend, Tim. Gabe also co-ordinates a social group for LGBT/Queer students but isn’t exactly filled with the milk of human kindness when it comes to the needs of the individuals who are members of the social group. Drew is an ambitious journalist, editor of the Campus newspaper. He has a burning desire to tell a story about a guy he “hooked up” with who no one else knew/thought was gay, and who ultimately committed suicide.
Gabe and Drew are only weeks into their new relationship. Everyone has relationship advice for them: Tim, busily considering cheating on his girlfriend Jenny, thinks Drew is controlling; Jay, confined to a wheelchair, fancies Gabe himself; Nicky, in love with Drew, pursues Gabe. Drew and Gabe break up, leaving both free to be pursued…or to pursue. Teddy is keen on Gabe but Gabe is not interested. Drew “hooks up” with Tim and Gabe with Nicky. With all this going on, Teddy’s story is really a side issue.
Fundamentally, this is a missed opportunity. A play thoroughly exploring, in a mature and detailed way, the causes of Teddy’s suicide and the ramifications of it for everyone involved is a play that should be written. Urgently. A superficial soap which skims so many surfaces it leaves no impression is not only disappointing, but also plain wrong.
The other big themes are similarly disposable here: effective management of student campuses; fair hearings for aggrieved students; the ethics of journalism and, in particular, the difference between sensationalism and investigative reporting. Shinn treats all of these topics with casual disdain; none get enough attention for any coherent points to emerge, for any debate to be encouraged.
Cooke’s production is not the issue. It’s the play. Hildegard Bechtler provides a perfectly serviceable set, although the sight lines are unforgivable and there is an enclosed glass corridor which seemed a bizarre choice for a secret conversation at one point. Nothing about the design provides any energy or context for the performance; it’s a plain functional space where you can just about smell the mould. Paule Constable lights everything with her usual deft touch. So, when you can see what is happening, it all looks pretty much as good as it could.
Oliver Johnstone is excellent as the driven journalist Drew, a man whose unresolved issues from a former relationship prevent him from establishing a new one. The scene where he seduced Tim was played extremely well despite the writing being inherently unconvincing. Johnstone managed to convey surface arrogance and deep-rooted uncertainty while also distracting from Drew’s intolerant control issues. A very fine performance.
Luke Newberry, as Gabe, is irritatingly likeable, despite the character’s offhandedness about the feelings of others who look up to him to lead, and his penchant for running away from difficult situations. He does not face his feelings for Drew or Tim, and casually plays with the emotions of Teddy and Jay, knowing that to do so is, at best, callous. There is a mercurial aspect to Newberry’s performance which is effective but the part is so badly written that it is not really possible to make the part memorable. His best scene comes when he rubs the feet of Drew – there is an emotional honesty in that encounter which is ineffable but perfect.
Tim is that curious male beast: he doesn’t care who makes him ejaculate as long as someone does. Nathan Wiley nails the assured sexuality of Tim, the arrogant certainty that he can get whatever he wants, whether that be sexual gratification or re-election. He makes his relationship with both Jenny (Anjli Mohindra in good form in another under-written role) and Gabe work, and you understand why they stick with him despite his cavalier behaviour. He plays them like a violin and they let him.
Matthew Marsh, as the President of the Campus, seems to be in a different play from the rest of the cast. He turns in a big, showy, thoroughly unbelievable turn, complete with endlessly gesticulating hands; it’s the kind of performance you might find in a comedy, but it jars here. Nancy Crane’s earnest and insistent Provost keeps trying to ground Marsh, but he doesn’t take the cue. His sparring with Pamela Nomvete’s stereotypical angry lesbian is tiring; this is not Nomvete’s fault – again, it’s Shinn’s writing.
None of the other characters are sufficiently well developed in the text to permit really terrific performances and the rest of the cast do their best with what they are hand-cuffed with. But, for a play which deals explicitly with two suicides, and leaves you wondering about the ultimate fate of at least two other characters, perhaps three, there is a startling lack of empathy or involvement.
If this storyline played out in a television soap, you might forgive it. But on the stage of the Donmar? No.
A serious miscalculation.