Securing John Malkovich as a director for an in-house production at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, is a coup whatever way you look at it. And Malkovich does not disappoint – his production of Good Canary is a dazzling feast for the eyes, with a remarkable design and gloriously beautiful video projections. But the play is not that exciting and there is some odd casting – it is hard not to feel that as a stage director Malkovich makes a terrific filmmaker.
If you have ever stood on a side-walk in Manhattan on a warm Spring day and taken a moment to soak in your surroundings, you will be aware that the vista from that location is a particular one: the air just so; the light unique; the urban soundscape particular to the shades of the paint and the clang of the fire escapes; the breeze seductive; the concept of possibility palpable.
Rather astonishingly, Pierre-François Limbosch has perfectly captured that precise sense of place in his set and video projection designs for John Malkovich’s production of Zach Helm’s Good Canary which is now playing its premiere UK season at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, kicking off that venue’s American Season. As you watch the action unfold in various distinct NY locales – a swanky millionaire’s penthouse with stellar skyline views, a trendy “in” apartment for young aspirational types, a slightly seedy office/home for a struggling publisher, a brickwork and funky lights bar/restaurant, a popular breakfast haunt trading on a vaguely French heritage – the smooth, quite beautiful, projections morph and swish, the colours larger than life, but the overall effect intensely real.
Filmic is really the only apt description. Limbosch puts the audience very precisely into the characters’ world and then freeze-frames, dissolves, wipes, zooms in and zooms away – sometimes the perspective reflects the characters’ mood or thought, sometimes just what they observe. This rich palette of colour and movement permits the performances to stand in raw relief.
Which would be fine if the performances were all capable of withstanding such brutal exposure. But they are not, and Limbosch’s success merely underlines that in the same way it emphasises the deficiencies in Helm’s text. Malkovich’s vision for Good Canary is strong and wide-ranging, involving many different techniques to communicate ideas. In truth, Malkovich is seeking to create a cinematic experience on stage, and it is a credit to him that he succeeds as well as he does.
This is the first time Good Canary has been performed in the language in which Helm penned it – English. Previous productions have been in French, Spanish, Portuguese and German and perhaps that explains why the textual language is not as polished as it might be. Phrases jar, sentences seem odd, linguistic rhythms don’t quite work.
Equally, there is no clear sense of the nature of the play: is it a comedy or a drama or a farce or some form of hybrid? Helm does not seem to have opted for a final view and nothing about Malkovich’s direction suggests a constancy of approach.
Language aside, there are many problematic aspects to Helm’s narrative. The “big surprise”, which is meant to shock audiences at the end of Act One, is clear from almost the very start; the central male character, Jack, is mysteriously absent at a critical point in Act Two, unconscionably so, and seems able to differentiate between two examples of the same sort of fraud with compunction; the Fiction Critic alternates between profoundly arrogant and profoundly unctuous; the central female character seems to justify her addiction to amphetamines on the basis that she was raped and so her “DNA” requires them (while, unquestionably, rape is an horrific event, its capacity to alter DNA seems improbable). Want is different from Need.
Helm opines in the programme:
…we as a global society cling to long embedded but ultimately unhelpful cultural views toward mental health, particularly drug use and addiction. We are not very accepting of mental health that does not reflect our own, and we are disinterested in discussing how we as a society often cause, enable and drive many mental health issues, particularly among the disenfranchised, oppressed, traumatised and abandoned.
Good Canary does not really traverse that territory, although the central male character embodies the notion of trying to accept outside of the “norm” and, in his final speeches, reveals an understanding of Helm’s views in this respect. The play would have been vastly more interesting – and almost certainly more effective – if it did explore those areas in detail.
Rather, the play adopts a more straightforward course. A young couple, on the cusp of real success, real wealth. She is addicted to amphetamines; He enables her continuing addiction while never really trying to understand why She does what She does. Then, when an inevitable calamity, brought about by a cocktail of alcohol and speed, occurs at a work function and He finds that wealth may be denied him because of the utterly predictable behaviour of She, He ceases to enable and understand – opening a door that leads only one way.
What transforms Good Canary from being a ho-hum piece is Malkovich’s touches. He plays with the form of presentation, almost endlessly. Things start off normal enough, with a focus on naturalistic acting, but soon progress into odder and more extreme forms of theatricality: sudden bursts of choreography punctuate moments; a very funny sequence happens where an apartment is cleaned, on speed and at speed (visually and aurally); a critical sequence occurs in silence, the conversation appearing on the screens behind the actors, a literal realisation of interior thoughts; another sequence features the repetition of the same lines, over and over, in different states of urgency and distress; a key moment occurs in near darkness with the stage crew solemnly performing cleaning duties of their own.
In the end, it is these directorial touches of glamour that will be the prevailing scent of Good Canary. They, and Limbosch’s contributions, will live on in the memory long after Helm’s points, whatever they may be, have faded into obscurity.
Although the flaws are essentially about the writing, not all of the performances work as they should to maximise the potential in Helm’s text. The best performance comes from Ilan Goodman, who plays the furtive drug dealer who supplies the amphetamines which bring destruction to the central couple. Goodman is nervy and snippy, permanently on edge, fearful of the law catching him out. He presents as a real, albeit flawed, person in sometimes unreal situations. He is funny too; he surfs the material in just the right way and lands all the possibilities offered by the text.
As the hardworking, ambitious, desperate to be rich single-operator publisher, Charlie (aptly named, his drugs are money and power), Steve John Shepherd is also very good, although he might have fared better playing the character as more Jewish which appeared to be Helm’s intention. His characterisation is refreshingly awkward, as the character tries to navigate the path between friendship and business representation. Transparent greed, faintly disguised misogyny and fear of failure make for an interesting mix, and Shepherd makes the martini personality strong indeed.
In the central role, the allegorical titular bird, Freya Mavor is a convincing and determined junkie. All the tics of addiction are present: vacant stares, lost thoughts, unarticulated emotion, physical unawareness, petulance, anger, revulsion, self-harm, desperation and societal indifference. Mavor charts all of this with precision and care: she is fascinating to watch.
Her character, Annie, has two critical scenes. The first of these occurs in Act One, when Annie is drunk and high at a party and verbally dissects her husband’s potential new working colleagues. Mavor does not pull this scene off with the intensity and scabrous ferocity necessary to startle and scare; she seems quite capable of the extra distance, but Malckovich does not make her strive for that goal.
Her second crucial scene comes towards the end of the play and in this Mavor excels. Her physical performance here is quite remarkable, intense and brutal. With a character with a better trajectory and more nuanced dialogue, Mavor could really shine.
Harry Lloyd seems entirely miscast as Annie’s husband. He is soft where Jack should be hard, contemplative when he should be brooding, motherly when he should be paternal. Most egregiously, there is never any prospect of believing that he and Mavor are in a fully committed mutually satisfactory sexual union (not, of course, entirely his fault).
Aspects of the character work well with Lloyd – he is erudite and tender in spades – but the easy rugged masculinity inherent in the part is acutely absent. The scene where he pressures Goodman’s drug dealer into submission is nicely done, but the jagged uncertainty that should be present is simply not. The final scenes, then, do not seem remarkable, as they ought, because Lloyd has made the character thoughtful and considerate all along; a sudden contrast would pay better dividends. Lloyd seems to be channelling Joanthan Groff when he would be better channelling Steven Pasquale.
Neither Michael Simkins as the excessively rich, excessively odious publishing tycoon, Stuart, nor Simon Wilson as the odious New York Times reviewer, Mulholland, strike their marks. Simkins waffles and Wilson does not come close to the Shere Khan stalking and vituperative vengeance that fuels the character. The pen is not poisonous enough in Wilson’s hands and the brusqueness of business not sufficiently ingrained in Simkins’ portrayal.
Sally Rogers is wasted as Sylvia, Stuart’s trophy wife, a character only required to look good in a frock, display impressive breasts and add to the misogyny quota of the male ensemble. Rogers excels in a thankless role.
It is refreshing to see misogyny tackled so directly on stage. Would that Helm focussed the play squarely on that topic.
Good Canary references Hedda Gabler in several ways. The notion that one returned to, however, was how interesting it would be to see Malkovich direct this cast in that play with the same sort of cinematic visual treatment.
That would be something.