Aisling Loftus’s Anne starts this play dressed in an ill-fitting dress and cheap, unflattering sandals in the well-appointed New York offices of big-shot married filmmakers Andrew and Jennifer (Julian Ovenden and Indira Varma).
The featureless luxury of zinc-covered minimalism speaks of the wealth and sophistication of Andrew and Julian’s world as Anne tells them the story of her life: her experiences with a man who blindfolds her and subjects her to what seems like cruel humiliations in her home.
They can’t get enough of it. They are desperate to harvest her story and turn it into something big. Something for the cinema. And it will only work if they put words in her mouth and overlay everything.
So begins Martin Crimp’s 1993 play, a study (in part) of the phoniness of the film world and the dishonesty of people who want to feast off real experience and pain and turn it into something that suits their ends. We also meet Gary Beadle’s fabulously brash and cocky star John and Clifford, a failing older writer who is discarded by the production almost as quickly as he is brought in to it.
As satire it is as blunt as a baseball bat. Film industry shallowness and idiocy feels like a soft target and the avariciousness and crudity of Andrew and Jennifer is frankly hard to believe at times, let alone stomach.
Crimp is a writer who has spoken openly in the past of his one, terrible experience with the film world and is hard to escape the nagging idea that this is his vengeance on the awfulness of its world and those people.
Jennifer is a ghastly creature, dumb to the truth of other people’s experiences to the point of parody, insensate even to the fact that her husband seems so drawn to Anne that he declares his love for her within two hours of meeting her.
There is another moment which drew many guffaws when one of the studio exces turns against Anne, whose experiences are forming the subject of the film, and points at her. She says: “this is not my idea of Anne”. If it feels like a cheap laugh, that is because it is.
When Crimp’s writing is being satirical it simply falls flat. But in the hands of this highly accomplished troupe of actors and skilled director Lyndsey Turner, this play also becomes something else. At key moments it is turned into a mesmerising meditation on the fear and loneliness of living with real lived experience in a hostile world.
Aisling Loftus as Anne
Andrew, as a character, feels a lot more interesting than his wife Jennifer. In some senses, he, rather than Anne, is the fulcrum of this play. He cannot escape his obsession with Anne’s story; like a drowning man gasping for a lug of oxygen, he is desperate for a dose of what he believes to be the truth and real life she represents, an escape from the sushi bars and easygoing privileges of his world and marriage.
That truth that Andrew is so desperate for is also to be seen in the scenes which take place in the down and dirty city, when the hack writer Clifford chances upon the streets and when Anne takes a cab and discovers that her driver is blind. For some reason Anne asks him to continue driving and for some reason he doesn’t kill them both. It was rather beautiful.
It seems absurd but there is a poeticism to these strange interludes that speak of individuals groping in the dark in an unpleasant and hostile metropolis. These moments have a real depth and beauty.
And when Anne and her abuser – who turns out to be her husband Simon (Matthew Needham) – spend time together time also seems to stand still. What is it about their relationship? Is it really abusive? Why is Anne so drawn to it? Crimp offers no clear or easy answers but there is a fascinating sense that, for Andrew, whatever it is and however awful it is, it is real. That is something the film world is not.
The power of this play comes in these moments in between, the moments when the lost and lonely characters speak to each other and we sense the aching pain and separateness of modern urban life.
The Treatment is at the Almeida Theatre, London N1 until June 10
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