A Bitter Pill
Almeida Theatre | London
directed by Lyndsey Turner
A young woman sits in an office describing the experience of having her mouth taped. Two others are present: one silent, one pedantically pinning down the details while spectacularly missing the point. Is this a police interview? A therapy session? It eventually becomes clear that we are at sea in even more treacherous waters – showbiz. The woman is Anne, and these producers are banking on taking her rough-hewn life and buffing it up for the silver screen. It’s Jeremy Kyle, Manhattan-style, and a satirically brilliant opening. But the endless hoops that Anne’s story must jump soon contorts the fragile spirit that landed her there in the first place.
Lyndsey Turner’s fine production of The Treatment for the Almeida extrapolates one of our oldest fairytales – the innocent lured to the big city by the promise of validation. Martin Crimp attributes some inspiration for his 1993 play to his own experiences of writing for film across the pond. After being passed around from meeting to meeting, increasingly populated with anonymous faces, he realised: “I was being duped.” The point was not his voice or vision, but the solipsistic gabble of the various ‘creatives’ around him. Crimp learned, as Anne does here, that everyone has their own take on an individual’s individuality – and once the money-train starts rolling, few care about its point of departure. “This is not my idea of Anne,” one character declares to Anne herself. She may as well be speaking for an entire industry.
Giles Cadle’s design is a slick box-set that, along with Neil Austin’s clever, oppositional lighting, elevates us through the high-rise of New York life: a simple dumpster creates an alleyway where a former-Broadway playwright sells family cutlery, while a vase of blossom signifies a restaurant where dishes are designated by letters of the alphabet. The creation of this world is also indebted to the endless hustle of The Treatment community company, who add a vibrant stream of metropolitan life. The ensemble sees to it that the city becomes the production’s tenth character, illuminating one of the subtler questions raised by the piece: are the mentally unwell drawn to the inner city, or is urban life itself the cause of invisible illness?
The cast excel across the board. Indira Varma is darkly delectable as producer Jennifer, her amorality as sharp as her stiletto heels, a deep drink of power carbonated with hilarious moments of vapid condescension. Her arch expressions, even when merely listening, are intelligently drawn and an endless pleasure – Varma really is one of our finest actresses, and we are lucky to have her so often on the London stage. Matthew Needham, as Anne’s alcoholic husband Simon, is apishly menacing, oozing with blue-collar frustration, lashing out at an industry that (as he sees it) offers nothing but glorified nihilism. Ellora Torchia is superb piece of casting in the smaller role of Nicky – her giddily sinister appropriation of Anne’s story and ascension from receptionist to film star is eminently watchable (she’s a nifty mover too, as Arthur Pita’s rousing choreography highlights). And then there is Anne herself, in a powerfully frayed performance from Aisling Loftus. Her crackling voice and eye-boggling disbelief at her story’s manipulation is a moving mix of vulnerability, rage and thwarted desire.
Crimp is one of those writers who seems happy to dwell on the edge of the limelight, but is always a shadowy delight to rediscover. The lethal agility of his dialogue, the disjointedness of his worlds, the inviting murkiness of his characters simply fascinates. His dialogue spirals, like sharks circling slowly before threshing in for the kill. The difficulty with The Treatment is that its odd trajectories, so compelling in the first half, don’t quite correlate in the second – the grand shape of the plot cannot replicate Crimp’s miniaturist genius. As events proceed we are left somehow with a sense of being left behind, and its finale is more of a slap than a knock-out. But the metaphors of voicelessness and blindness are richly resonant, and the warning behind them is stark – being gagged by those you know may well be better than being gagged by those you don’t. And perhaps part of real love, of real life, is resisting other people’s expectations of what it should be. The Treatment offers glimpses of a world that never confirms to expectations, and certainly doesn’t bore. The visual motif of endless taxi rides through the Big Apple reminds us that just because the city is part of our lives does not mean that we are part of its.
photo | ©Marc Brenner