13 October 2017
Chloe Lamford’s set presents a box in the Jerwood Downstairs surrounded by scaffolding, which contains the kind of modern, expensive, prefab apartment you see in every part of Central London. It’s typical, and typically furnished, and the performance notes specify that the ‘generic art’ on the walls looks like it’s been ‘chosen by a property management company’.
The action, directed by Vicky Featherstone, is also typical. A couple come home from a holiday and make dinner. The Man — just ‘Man’ in the script, and played by Jonjo O’Neill — receives Skyrim by Amazon post and plays it on his weirdly previous-gen Xbox 360. The Woman, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, tidies and makes the bulk of the meal (yeah…), before giving up and ordering pizza.
But, and this is the big anti-naturalistic But, what they say is not what the characters we see are saying. Both Man and Woman deliver a monologue each in bits and in turns, while also enacting the unrelated domestic scene described above. They deliver their bits sometimes to the audience, sometimes to each other and sometimes into the air; where they’re looking is mostly dictated by where the characters would be looking in the scene they’re playing. So Duncan-Brewster may be carping about the inauthenticity of disaster movies while placidly eating a slice pizza, and O’Neill may be playing Skyrim while recalling a dream he’s imagined his enemy having.
Wait… dreams and disasters and snipers? This doesn’t have much to do with two characters coming back from holiday (from Greece, apparently, which is what it says in the script)…
The glaring aspect of Victory Condition, the thing it wears with a badge of pride, is the way the monologues have very little relation to the scene we’re seeing. Woman talks about the experience of a dull morning at an ad agency, a brain haemorrhage at a tube stop, time freezing, and another woman trapped in a bathroom who gains magic powers (a bit like The Power), inter alia. Man talks about being a sniper during what I think is a civil war, and how he spots a woman through his crosshairs; then, he rhapsodizes about her, imaging a dream she’s had about an alien invasion and how connected he feels to her in that moment, inter alia. Both characters talk while enacting a mundane routine that doesn’t relate at all to what they talk about. Their speech detaches itself from their action, their topics ramble into the next. Everything is out of joint.
Judging by the blurb quote — ‘A thousand people are taking a sip of coffee within the city limits of Johannesburg, each unaware of the other doing it, each one necessarily thinking they are the only one.’ — which O’Neill’s character says, and judging by the broad sweep of the content and the general disconnectedness of it all, Victory Condition is about globalism and how it stymies political action. There’s even a bit about how sufficiently large and complex societies fail to understand what their nature really is. But then, in avoiding despondency, the play suggests a time when people will connect again, because despite the disconnect at every level of the production, in set and in speech and in action and content, everything is ultimately bound together, and the little pip of dialogue at the end after the monologues are over, which was something like ‘M: Hey. W: Are you alright?’, shows this.
(On a little margin note: I like how Featherstone’s production omitted the entirety of the end dialogue as it existed in the script. The way it currently is on stage is a two-line exchange suggesting a proceeding conversation, whereas the book has this meta-nonsense that she was wise to cut out.)
All the intellectualism aside, I didn’t enjoy the production based on the prose, and to a lesser extent based on O’Neill’s maudlin approach to his monologue.
The prose slips into this register that I find persists in a lot of experimental theatre. It crops up in the shows Celebration talked about when it referred to a ‘dramaturgically rigorous piece of theatre’ (or something to that effect). It’s a measured, poetic style, a little bit hard and a little bit factual, but not afraid to jump geographically and delve into dry, complex topics — like the social structure of gorilla societies. I’ve seen it in Tim Crouch’s work, in Chris Goode’s work (although Men in the Cities was more personal), and I’ve probably imagined in Fringe shows I’ve never seen.
I flick to a random page: ‘Let me tell you a story as I watch you pick your way among the piles of rubble and the stolen tyres. As you flash across the gaps, between slogans sprayed on bedsheets, thrown over the defences so they face in my direction.’ (pg 12).
Which is similar to: ‘I’m led downstairs by a young woman with her hair pulled back and held in place with a large plastic tortoise shell hair grip — like sharp teeth chomping down on the back of her head!’. That second bit is from The Author, but the style works there because comes up sparingly and because it clashes against the emerging vileness (God, it’s such a good play).
The problem is that Victory Condition is all that style, for 55 minutes. Duncan-Brewster manages her side well by matching the tone with a delivery that resembles a less pompous Ted Talk. O’Neill on the other hand flubs his by going maudlin.
So it’s smart, this new work by Chris Thorpe, and mercifully short, but also utterly un-visceral and utterly unengaging. Like most experimental theatre.