Till Death Do Us Part

4 November 2013

Two plays on the London stage – Joanna Murray-Smith’s Scenes From A Marriage and Alexi Kaye-Campbell’s The Pride – put modern relationships, gay and straight, under the microscope, with alarming results. 

My last blog was about two films in which neglected children have to take on the difficulties of adult life far too soon. So it seems appropriate that my next cultural outing was a back-to-back viewing of two plays showing in London this autumn in which over-indulged adults who probably should know better behave like frightened children.

Scenes From A Marriage, adapted by Joanna Murray-Smith from Ingmar Bergman’s celebrated 1973 film (and playing at the St James Theatre) was a coruscating journey through ten years in the life of a spectacularly dysfunctional relationship. The Pride, first performed at the Royal Court in 2008 (and playing at the Trafalgar Studios) compares a closeted gay relationship in the 1950s with an equally dysfunctional gay relationship in modern times. Taken one at a time, each play might have been mildly depressing. Watched on the same day, it was enough to wipe out my weekend.

Though different in tone and style, each play’s focus on the minutiae of long-term relationships is remarkably similar – as are the playwrights’ desires to reveal the secrets and lies festering behind placid surfaces, and a certain self-indulgent use of ugly sexual violence to punctuate the dialogue.

In Scenes From A Marriage, we know that Johan and Marianne’s marriage is doomed from the opening scenes, in which they preen self-consciously in front of a journalist who’s profiling them for a magazine article on successful modern marriages. By the time they’re congratulating themselves on their happiness after watching unhappily married friends bickering in front of them at a dinner party, we’re checking our watches and waiting for the axe to fall. Sure enough, by the end of the first act, we’re watching Johan drop a cluster bomb as he tells Marianne, with a mixture of callousness and self-pity, that he’s having an affair with a younger woman and is going to leave the marriage to be with her.

In The Pride, there’s a similar sense of romantic fatalism from the opening scene of the 1950s story, as we watch closeted married man Philip form an immediate attraction to Oliver, the gay friend and co-worker of his wife Sylvia, who looks on suspiciously. In the modern story, Philip and Oliver are now openly gay men and lovers, but recently broken up – we see Philip leaving in disgust over Oliver’s addiction to sex with strangers – and Oliver seeks solace with actress friend Sylvia, who’s becoming increasingly disenchanted at being Oliver’s shoulder to cry on.

Sylvia (Hayley Atwell) and Philip (Harry Hadden-Patten) in the 1950s segment of “The Pride”

Both playwrights make their characters hyper-articulate and breathlessly over-analytical: in between fights, they advance complex debates about love, marriage, fidelity, deception and the possibilities of happiness. In Scenes From A Marriage, Johan and Marianne debate the different needs of men and women in relationships and whether it’s possible to have honesty co-exist with passion. In The Pride, the 1950s Oliver, who seems unusually comfortable with his sexual preference, claims to hear a voice from the future assuring him that one day he will be free, whereas his modern counterpart claims to hear a voice from the past, telling him that he is fundamentally unlovable.

Both Murray-Smith and Kaye-Campbell are fully engaged with and sympathetic to their characters, but it doesn’t always work organically as drama. Too often their characters feel like illustrations of debate points rather than human beings. Even making allowances for the artificiality of theatrical dialogue, it seems unlikely that their dramatis personae would have the self-awareness about their motivations that they display, or the ability to articulate their thoughts and feelings as elegantly and persuasively as they do.

Accordingly, some of the strongest scenes in each play come when the characters stop speaking their slightly anachronistic therapy-style monologues and are allowed simply to be in the scene. In Scenes From A Marriage, we’re able to watch every moment of Olivia Williams’ emotional devastation as she reacts, mostly without words, to the enormity of the news of her husband’s deception. In The Pride, we’re moved less by 1950s Sylvia’s farewell speech to Oliver than we are at her terrified face as she takes in the details of her husband’s affair, or when we watch 1950s Oliver slowly compose himself after an aggressive incident with Philip. It’s in these moments that we’re given space to make our own assessments of the characters, and see in them aspects of themselves that they aren’t fully aware of or understand. As much as I love a strong and well-articulated narrative, both plays reminded me of the strength inherent in the old and somewhat hackneyed writing school mantra to show rather than tell – and, by comparison, how much less interesting a scene can be when we’re continually being told what to think.

It’s perhaps a sign of the times that both plays, as part of their mission to “update” historically-set narratives, feature graphic scenes of ugly sexual violence between the warring lovers. For modern playwrights schooled on the sadistic parlour games of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, David Mamet’s Oleanna and anything written by Neil la Bute (or, for that matter, the classical tragedies of Seneca), scenes of a sexually violent nature are perhaps no more remarkable than stage directions, though they still haven’t lost their capacity to shock. Interestingly, both playwrights script a fight as the definitive marker of the end of the lovers’ relationships. In Scenes From A Marriage, Johan and Marianne’s businesslike signing of the divorce papers descends into a blistering fight, ending with Johan kicking Marianne in the stomach while she’s lying on the floor. In The Pride, 1950s Philip insists to Oliver that their affair has to end, and then, in a horribly confused gesture of passion and self-hatred, rapes Oliver over the side of the living room armchair. Both scenes were hair-raising to watch, and felt, oddly, both self-indulgent and utterly necessary for each story. For all the lovers’ grandiose talk about love and their liberal ideals, it was only in moments of physical abuse that they stumbled into the truth of their respective situations. “We should have started fighting years ago”, Marianne says to Johan as she limps to the door, her nose bleeding and the signed divorce papers stuffed into her briefcase. 

In another somewhat predictable nod towards contemporary cynicism about love, all the lovers – Johan and Marianne, both sets of Philip and Oliver, Sylvia and Philip – only find understanding about the truth of their relationships once the connections have ended. In The Pride, 1950s Sylvia leaves her marriage, an independence echoed by her modern counterpart as she kindly but firmly removes herself as modern Oliver’s enabler. Similarly, modern Oliver finally starts to understand the consequences of his behaviour on Philip as they share a post-break up picnic lunch at a gay pride parade. Scenes From A Marriage spells out the point even more aggressively, having Johan and Marianne find peace, honesty and understanding with each other only once they’re divorced, married to other people and having an affair with each other. Each play ends on the somewhat depressing conclusion that understanding a marriage or long-term relationship can only be fully achieved once the relationship no longer exists – the implication being that love is at best a distracting form of illusion, and anathema to the truth.

My major gripe with each play is that, as is often the way with intimate chamber pieces of only two or three characters, there’s little detail of the world the characters live in to give their relationships a specific cultural context. The characters in Scenes From A Marriage and The Pride exist for the most part only in relation to each other, and we have little sense of the competing burdens of family, friends, work and prevailing cultural norms. (Patrick Marber’s play Closer had much the same problem). Perhaps this is the point that Murray-Smith and Kaye-Campbell want to make: that relationships are a form of self-imposed isolation from the world, unknowable to everyone but the inmates trapped inside. But this feels unsatisfactory, and left me feeling that I’d watched some very talented actors play-act a relationship, rather than get an insight into human behaviour that might exist outside of a theatre.

The absence of a world outside the space of the play was especially fatal for The Pride, which clearly wants to be a play about destructive effects of homophobia on gay men’s self-esteem and relationship prospects. Kaye-Campbell achieves this briefly in a memorably creepy scene in which 1950s Philip submits to a sadistic form of aversion therapy prescribed by a voyeuristic doctor. In that moment, the play flickers to life and acquires breadth and depth, as we start to understand the weight of public opinion against homosexuality in the pre-gay rights era, and the near-impossibility of 1950s Philip and Oliver being able to be together. But for the most part, we’re left with Oliver and Philip and Sylvia debating the nature of love and relationships in a context-free zone, which becomes increasingly fatuous as we move into the modern scenes. Though modern Oliver’s sexual addiction is written sympathetically (and played most affectingly by Al Weaver in this production), we never get to understand the homophobia, internal or cultural, that’s lead him to conclude that he’s fundamentally unloveable. As intriguing as it is to watch a clearly-articulated two- or three-hander on stage, both plays might have been better had the playwrights allowed their characters to open the front door once in a while and let the rest of the world in.

Oliver (Al Weaver) and Philip (Harry Hadden-Patten) in the 1950s segment of “The Pride”.

My final and possibly most depressing realisation after my six hours of relationship boot camp on Saturday was that in each play, it was the women rather than the men who were the repositories of wisdom and the only true grown-ups on stage, while the men were, for the most part, sweetly spoiled and self-deluding little boys in adults’ clothing. The women indulged the men’s fantasies until they realised they didn’t want to anymore, at which case the men regressed, grew their hair long and flapped about on stage for a bit, like dying fish tipped out of their water bowls. Johan, Oliver and Philip all need to grow up, and learn from each other rather than retreating into masculine clichés, just as Marianne and Sylvia need to learn to stop being enablers and understand their natures independently of men.

There’s something rather unsatisfactory about this lapsing into a 1970s essentialist view of gender politics, especially for two contemporary plays. Murray-Smith can at least blame the retro sexual politics of Scenes From A Marriage on the 1970s film it was based on, despite its modernisation into the world of smartphones and the internet. Kaye-Campbell also has history on his side in the 1950s segment of The Pride, that plays like a more explicit version of a Terence Rattigan play, but even his modern scenes smack of a degree of cliché about gay men as whiney Blanche du Bois-style basket cases. It’s not that these men don’t exist – switch on Grindr and you’ll see them lining up in their thousands – it’s just that Kaye-Campbell brings little insight to what makes dysfunctional gay relationships tick or what the basis of Oliver’s sex addiction might be. (A scene where Oliver pays a rent boy to dress as a Nazi and abuse him is amusing, but in many ways a lost opportunity). It seems that it will take another generation of playwrights to plot the course of male and female characters who aren’t as constrained by gender stereotypes, or who don’t fall back into the same reassuring clichés about men and women as these works ultimately do.

All in all, I enjoyed Scenes From A Marriage and The Pride, mainly for the pleasure of watching skilled actors rise above the constraints of each play’s scenario to bring their characters to painful life. But for now, I’m going to give grim theatrical dissections of relationships a wide berth, and go and see some mindless, heart-warming trash. Who’s for Mumma Mia! or The Lion King?

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