Sweet or Salty
National Theatre | London
directed by Sam Gold
There is something unsettling about entering a theatre and finding yourself confronted with rows of empty seats, pretty similar to the ones you are sitting on, instead of the set stage you were expecting. The dingy cinema auditorium of Annie Baker’s Pulitzer-prize winning play feels less like a theatre set; rather more like a mirror, reflecting our own mundane lives back at us. This is unlike a traditional theatre performance: we are simply watching the lives of other ordinary people unfold.
It’s not just the set that propounds this idea. The script creeps along at an absolute snail’s pace, making three and a quarter hours of often-awkward viewing. Yet the shifting discomfort the show provides isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We get to know the characters at the pace they get to know each other, uncomfortable silences and all, which isn’t something often portrayed in theatre. The delicate plotlines of the character’s lives stand in stark contrast to those of the dramatic movies they frequently discuss, and the occasional rousing swell of cinematic music further distances them and their long, painful silences, from their screen idols.
The characters are pretty recognisable to anyone who has ever worked a front of house job: Avery (Jaygann Ayeh), the enthusiastic student for whom this is just a temporary job on his way to bigger things; Rose (Louisa Krause), the outwardly confident, inwardly lost twenty-something year old; and Sam (Matthew Maher), the thirty-something who, for better or worse, finds himself still working this dead-end job and thus takes a reluctant pride in the way things are done. The dynamic between the three characters is absolutely spot-on. Baker’s script is intimate, witty and subtly nuanced, layering meaning in seemingly dull interactions. Sam’s frustration with Rose for showing Avery how to operate the projector before him will be recognisable to anyone who has worked a menial job and had a newbie rise the ranks before you. Though you tell yourself the job is not important to you, you don’t want to be left behind.
Directed by Baker's frequent collaborator, Sam Gold, the relationships between the characters are very well developed: the way they tread the boundary between friends/colleagues with care, the almost-incestuous way they all fancy each other and the way hanging out after work can lead to deeper explorations of their hopes and fears about themselves and their futures.
A more immediate concern about the future is presented when it is discovered that their cinema will be sold to a chain that will make the change from film projector to digital projector. Avery is a film nerd who can find less than six degrees of cinematic separation between any two given movie stars and is as passionate about keeping the original film projector as his co-workers are apathetic. He tries in vain to persuade the new owner to keep film alive but alas, the future is inevitable. However, Avery’s passionate defence of real film poses many questions about the pervasive shift to digital, and whether digital advances in general are actually improving our lives or whether they are just weak approximations of the real thing(s).
The problem with The Flick, and the reason why many have reportedly walked out, is that not much happens. The script is spare and lingering, without any hint of poetic insight; the characters are not special people; the hyper realitic set (by David Zinn) doesn’t change and there is no dramatic twist or event to keep your intrigue. The play is boring in parts – at one point there are no characters onstage at all for several minutes. But that is the point. Baker’s play is a protest against excessive over-dramatisation. It rebels against the speed at which we rush through out lives now that everything is digital and therefore super-fast. This is a play that demands patience and focus so no; it’s not for everyone. But if you’re willing to switch off your phone and give your full attention to the hesitant friendships of three low-paid, quietly desperate cinema employees, you might learn something about what’s happening right now, instead of plunging head-first and thoughtlessly into the future.
photo | ©Mark Doucet