The 'C' Word

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Stephen Adly Guirgis' The Motherf**ker with the Hat

National Theatre | London

directed by Indhu Rubasingham

The ‘C’ word here being nothing more flagrant than ‘commitment’. And yet, as words go these days, almost as controversial. Commitment to our romantic relationships, yes, and therein lies the plot – but also commitment to ourselves, to that intangible sense, barely more than a hunch, of the self that dwells somewhere between past mistakes and tentative fidelity to the future. Stephen Adley GuirgisJesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train remains, along with Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, one of the century’s most fantastically febrile productions, performances that elevated the theatrical to the spiritual. Guirgis brilliantly creates drama where, to echo the programme, ‘the plots are driven by the tension between people trying to do right by each other – and the inadequacy of available moral systems’. And although The Motherfucker With The Hat may deal with characters more grasping than incandescent, this sense of folk making ill-thought-out decisions and desperate sacrifices in order be basically decent human beings prevails beautifully.

Indhu Rubasingham has put together an incendiary production: Robert Jones’ scintillating neon-framed set has fire escapes twirling like a baby’s mobile, revealing a tantruming world of evasion and frustration. The inner landscapes, a few simple yet vibrant habitats, form and reform, imploding and exploding from the darkness of the wings and flies like some urban god’s mind, effortlessly constructing cosmic soap operas.

Then the comedy – for it is one, despite the intense dissection of these sweetly tragic characters – begins. Ricardo Chavira’s Jackie is on probation, sober and clean for two years now, and arrives bearing cuddly toys and lotto tickets for his long-term sweetheart Veronica (played with erratic relish by Flor De Liz Perez). Veronica may still be using – without missing a beat she berates her mother for reliance on drugs while refreshing herself with a rolled-up note – but Jackie is determined to get back on track. Determined, but not so dogged that a stranger’s hat in his girlfriend’s apartment doesn’t send him hurtling off the rails. And there you have the title of the play in all its Freudian glory. His discovery of the tell-tale scent of “Aqua Velva and dick” in their bed is hilariously anguished, as he’s torn between a tender willingness to be deceived and the bleakly available facts. Well, people mess up; it’s how we respond that displays character. Unfortunately Jackie’s response is to borrow a gun from a psychopathic old school-friend (a character manifested in a moving story about a mother’s neighbourly kindness) and he sets about on confused, confounded and comedic retribution.

Meanwhile Jackie’s sponsor, Alec Newman’s sharp and scaly Ralph, living the clean life and enriched by a nutritional smoothie empire, offers a stark and smug contrast to his sponsee’s volatile situation. Here we see that groups such as AA do, if nothing else, toss together an intriguingly rich salmagundi of society. But not even Ralph’s luxurious lounge, super-size telly and endless vitamin shakes can quite hide the fact that addiction, however subdued by mantras of acceptance and crushed ice makers, is a helluva thing to live with. You’re reminded of that old chain-smoker’s retort: “You don’t live longer by not smoking, it just feels longer”. Ralph’s acerbic wife Victoria, played with languorous spite by Nathalie Armin, is struggling to detox too – at every turn people are undertaking Sisyphean tasks with greased and itchy palms.

And then there is the one character un-yoked by addiction, Jackie’s Cousin Julio, who, offering up mimosas, Becks and empanadas, exudes a wholesome warmth that you yearn for the other characters to embrace. Yul Vázquez is outstanding as the lilting, deadpan Julio – both butchly protective and achingly vulnerable, hysterically funny yet morally capable. It is testament to the pitiful plight of the others that he is seen as the ‘weirdo’.

This play may not offer the defibrillator effect of some of Guirgis’ earlier work. But there is something searching, and heartfelt, and genuinely progressive going on here. All of the characters, even the wretchedly manipulative antagonist, are written with such muscular honesty that you soon find yourself seduced by the tactility of their argument. “Anybody you meet before the age of, say, 25? That's your friend. Anyone after that? That's just an associate. Someone to pass the time. But friend? Shit. Friends are at the playground.” Painful, perhaps, but the splinter of truth sticks, here and elsewhere in the writing. A dynamically chaotic tussle between self-improvement, love, family, friendship, and yes, commitment. Much more than a catchy title.

photo | ©Mark Douet

#nationaltheatre #london #guirgis

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