A review of ‘Evening at The Talk House’
by Wallace Shawn
A response to the Play as opposed to the Production
By David Erdos
Wallace Shawn’s new Play ‘Evening at The Talk House,’ currently running at the NT’s Dorfman Theatre is the latest work in his ongoing investigation into the death of culture and with it, responsible thought. Questioning the moral, political and artistic status quo has always been the sinqua non of Shawn’s plays but ‘The Fever,’ ‘The Designated Mourner,’ ‘Grasses of a Thousand Colours’ and now this new, artfully disguised masterpiece are deliberate provocations for a complacent and comfortable crowd.
As you start reading, the play seems smaller in scope than its predecessors and far more concerned with almost genteel introductions to characters, incidents and ideas, but it soon opens up to prove itself to be as chilling a portrait of (dis) organised State control as the latter Pinter plays, showing how the governing classes dispense both privilege and punishment. Robert’s long opening monologue – dismissed recently in The Evening Standard with the blandest description possible, sets the scene with far more detail than we realise. A former playwright, now turned TV Hack, Robert’s eponymous and much respected ‘Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars,’ serves to bind not only the hidden story in the play which connects the protagonists through their numerous functions, but also harks back to a time when the taste for ancient tales and classically set stories was still fresh on the communal tongue. Now Robert is employed by an Orwellian type broadcaster to produce a long running sit-com/soap opera,or something very close to it, but which now passes for Drama, a kind of Storm Saxon set up for those of you familiar with Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta, or, if not that, the televisual cousin of the equally synthetic Soylent Green. The other characters were all connected to the original play as actors or observers, including Nellie the proprietor of The Talk House Club where this play is set. The club, once the home of celebration and revelry, epitomised by its famous snacks, but now endangered and close to bankruptcy, is now a fading refuge, existing long enough to grant this group of people one last conversation about the size and the scale of the dark. Tom, Jane, Bill, Annette and Dick primed and informed by Robert’s work early in their careers went on to involve themselves in a series of compromises and thrawted adventures, each declining in their way as the anonymous but nevertheless oppressive regime took hold. It is in fact this singular evening that brings them back together, perhaps for the final time, allowing a final chance of renewal. It is of course what we might call the human tragedy that they are prevented from doing so.
Shawn’s characters are often self obsessed but capable of long term reflection. This was apparent in the early work, ‘The Old Man’ and in his most recognised play ‘Aunt Dan and Lemon’ in which the morally corrupt are at least self aware enough to know that they are not ashamed of their shortcomings or indeed defined by their forebodings. This is nowhere more apparent than in Jack’s defence of his own limitations in ‘The Designated Mourner,’ or indeed Shawn’s own self summary in the highly regarded film, ‘My Dinner With Andre,’ but he does a good deal more here than just ‘sharpen a few pencils..’ Instead, in a relatively short play, that seems on first glance, far more accessible than the intricately woven strands of fantasy and conjecture from which Grasses of a Thousand Colours was spun, is to place both characters and reader/audiences into the thick of the fight. The theatre as a force and form of change and entertainment is literally dead in this play and in its wake a new form of entertainment has taken over, commissioned by the state and written by such former luminaries as Robert and it is this new format which seems to cover all with a placatory standard as well as resolve any need. Actors who cannot find employment in the chosen broadcasts are forced into becoming state sanctioned murderers, sent to far countries to assassinate all insurgents. When they have outlived their usefulness in that department they are suitably embroiled in a process of ‘targeting,’ in which future insurgents are recognised and then handed onto others, a collusion that the truly artistic spirit was practically formed to resist. In the twilight of their careers they are finding the pig before you put the pineapple on it and are doing it gladly, sucking down and succumbing to the poisoned teat of the state. When the ramshackle character of Dick is introduced the once charming actor has become a bloated parody of himself. Someone once sweet and adorable has become a kind of walking cancer and social canker, and his first entrance details how he has just endured an intervention from friends who have beaten him up in the hope of showing him the error of his ways. This literal and deeply funny repression of the artistic spirit and personality is more directly expressed in this play than in some of Shawn’s others, but carries as much power and relevance as anything previously described. Jack’s debate on the effects of Pornography and Literature in The Designated Mourner are perhaps wider reaching, but the effect is the same: the artistic impulse is one to be punished by either direct outside action or from the shallow confines of the private heart.
Evening at The Talk House therefore becomes the ultimate piece of Democratic retaliation against all foreign forces, from African intrigue under Mugabe type action, through to the evils of Isis, but unfortunately comes at a cost. It shows that the only way to defeat evil is to use evil and in doing so, sacrifice what makes you an artist or entertainer in the first place. (This is also of course a mirror for the profession as we currently experience and practise it.) Art which questions art is often seen as pretentious, but this is not the case here. Shawn is a masterful dealer of moral and artistic principle and to blur the analagies, sculpts with language and ideas in ways and with means that are both self reflective and revelatory. The ridiculous notion that a crumbling theatrical vanguard lead the way is almost too much to stomach but then we in Britain have to recognise that one of the UK’s most famous TV shows was about a bunch of Wartime geriatrics defending the nation against Hitler, not all of whom were fully aware of their limitations. Shawn’s characters, in having surrendered their primary spirit realise the damnations they have incurred but continue, fighting the vainglorious fight irrespective of prestige or capability. What Shawn shows, certainly in the character of Robert (who becomes the chief villain/antagonist), but also in Bill, Tom and Annette is their lack of care about this. They do what is required of them adjusting the heart like a belt and tailoring the mind and perception, all under the illusion of duty, first to their talent but truly to the changing context within which they find themselves. A late confrontation between the character of Jane (a former actress and waitress in the Talk House) shows how deeply the fight has raged and how much it has affected its soldiers, and Robert’s nonchalance is suitably chilling. Subsidiary characters die at a regular intervals throughout the play and when the Landlady Nellie shows signs of succumbing, seemingly from the engendered atmosphere of collusion if nothing else, the finely wrought ambiguity of the play’s ending deals extensive dividends. It is in fact, only Dick (played by Shawn himself in the NT Production) who, despite bearing the brunt of insult and perfidy throughout, is able to reinvoke the poetry of their youth and question the nature of their declining years. His reading from Robert’s play is exemplary as described in the text and shows how its very quality has him condemned. His pride and connection prove to be his downfall, with his early choking fit serving as a ghostly prologue /premonition of his own possibly Robert led end. Robert as ever is in control, labouring under the darkest wing while making sure that each angel is extinguished.
For those of you who have read Wallace Shawn’s previous work, you will know how unexpected and uncanny his writing is. Sentences constantly surprise and amaze you, from the relating of sexual congress with forest animals in Grasses of a Thousand Colours to the descriptions of an actress’s apartment full of flattened cats in this play, to the stunning fictional excerpt from Midnight in a Clearing, a textual equivalent to the bewitching filmic inserts by Bill Morrison in Shawn’s previous. Its a world where the word is King and one for which I believe theatre exists. Many would disagree of course, seeing the theatre as a place for spectacle and experimentation, but for me, it has always been a place where the word placed in the air affects change in the exact same way as the musical chord alters the rise of the heart. Wallace Shawn along with other geniuses such as Heathcote Williams, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and the thoroughly British writer, Jim Cartwright place language and its attendant lords of meaning and music right at the heart of theatrical experience. They show that while there maybe room for all, the correct words are all you will need.
Evening at The Talk House is a play where the real story is both masked and mirrrored. You have to work out how each of these characters affected their own individual deteriorations and transformations. And you alone have to picture the regime that is even as we speak and read infiltrating each space and silence around us. Wallace Shawn under the guise of Author/Actor is an Oracle of sorts, standing at the gates (The National Theatre can’t be regarded as a sideline) and pointing towards both ruin and reward. The sad truth is that the characters in this play, reflect back on all of us and through their dark and nefarious mirroring, they find us undeserving. And yet we are not sorry and so rattle on towards death. This is a play where talking and action are combined and not demonstrated. It is, like all of Shawn’s plays both concerto and portrait, slow dance in shadow as well as lantern lecture. The light at the end may flicker but the talk in the dark goes on. I know that when I see this play I will be impressed by the production and charmed and chilled by the performances but I wanted to write first, after reading, because I believe that this smooth shouldered slim volume speaks more than a roomful of truth. Go and see the play. Listen. And then read about your own heart.
David Erdos 29/11/15