Neo-absurdist plays of the 1960s have not always aged very well. Indeed, the well-made plays of the immediate post-war period by writers like Rattigan, Emlyn Williams and JB Priestly often feel more accessible than the later plays that ushered those playwrights into obscurity with such unseemly haste.
Every so often, however, one comes across a bit of 1960s nihilism which doesn’t feel immovably rooted in its period; such is The Local Stigmatic, the 50th anniversary production of which is staged at the Red Lion in Islington.
Not that the 1960s aren’t consciously, even lovingly, invoked. In the pre-show and incidental music, we get The Animals, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground and The Who (cleverly chosen and apposite tracks, by the way, not just a random melange of contemporary pop classics), period posters adorn the walls, and the two principal protagonists Graham (Wilson James) and Ray (William Frazer) sport black turtle necks, leather jackets and RaybanWayfarers.
But the world Graham and Ray inhabit doesn’t seem a half century distant. Graham spends most of his time talking about greyhound racing, but when he isn’t doing that he is talking about celebrity lives he reads about in tabloid press. And the world that these celebrities inhabit evokes both unreasonable fascination and titanic rage. Graham is dazzled by the lives of the rich and famous, and knows he will never have it. This dynamic is not at all foreign to 2016. Rather it has become truer in our own age instead of less.
Graham and Ray live in a seedy flat in London and Graham is the leader of the duo. It is his dark obsessions that drive the play forward, Ray often needling him but always following his lead, despite his occasional moral disquiet about the deeds they do. When they chance upon a nameless blind man (Tom Sawyer) and then one of the famous actors, called David, that Graham ‘follows’ in his tabloids, also played by Tom Sawyer, the consequences are shocking and difficult to watch. There are more than a few echoes of A Clockwork Orange here.
The dialogue is often elliptical and circular, which is when the play shows its age and lineage clearly, and one wants the dramatic narrative to push forward a little. But the lead performances always compel attention.
Wilson James, as Graham, prowls the tiny space, like a caged tiger, his eyes seemingly about to pop right out his skull and land somewhere in the second row. He talks about dog racing a lot and much of it is pretty obscure, but the barely repressed anger and frustration that fills James’ body keeps you interested.
Frazer, as Ray, has the looks of a matinee idol but is no less unsettling, particularly when his handsome face forces a brittle, humourless grin. He does what Graham wants, no matter how barbarous the act, and one gets the impression he needs Graham’s approval to make sense of and give meaning to his barren life as much as Graham needs the act itself.
The only relationship these two have is with each other, and while aggressively heterosexual in word and deed, there is a whiff of homoeroticism about their connection.
Tom Sawyer, as David, the famous actor, quietly drinking in a local pub in a flowered shirt and cravat and looking like David Hemmings, until disturbed by the smiling and fawning sociopaths, anchors the final third of the piece with an understated naturalism.
The climax of this encounter remains profoundly disturbing.
Heathcote Willams wrote this play when he was only 24; it later became the basis for AC/DC, which was staged to much fanfare at the Royal Court in 1970 and which, like its prototype, seems if anything more pertinent now than then. After that, he barely wrote another play but turned his hand to, in no particular order, poetry, sculpture, acting, song-writing and naturalism.
According to Nicholas Wright, who directed the original production of AC/DC, Williams, who was christened John Henley Jasper Heathcote-Williams but, perhaps wisely, changed his name after Eton, has a ‘almost aristocratic disdain’ for the trappings of fame and success and simply moved onto other pursuits that interested him at the time.
So, a play by Heathcote Williams is a rare find, and, on the evidence of this play, that has been a loss to English theatre over the last 40 years or so. His voice is unique, and the acting and taut direction, by Michael Toumey, of this production, serves that voice well.
Movement director Laura Weston deserves a special mention. In a play of this kind it is important that character is expressed by physicality as much as language and the choreographed violence doesn’t fail to unnerve and unsettle. There are a few caveats. So naturalistic was Sawyer’s performance that it stood in stark contrast to the far more stylised performances of Ray and Graham and sometimes seemed to come from a different play.
This might well be a directorial choice, to indicate that David inhabits an utterly different world, governed by different rules and compulsions, to that of Graham and Ray but it felt a little disconcerting.
Difficulty hearing actors is a regular complaint of theatre-goers these days. There’s no danger of that in this production, particularly when Wilson James, is speaking. However, it’s possible to take things too far. Being bellowed at for 60 minutes can grow irksome.
But these are relatively minor quibbles.
Man’s boundless capacity for inhumanity to man, his mesmerizing scope for destructiveness without moral boundaries and without remorse, is perhaps the only arresting theme of post-war drama.
This play addresses the subject head on, without providing answers. Rather, it asks a new one: does the society we have built make such nihilism more likely?
It’s worth an hour of your time.