Martin Crimp: The Treatment, Almeida Theatre, London (Director: Lyndsey Turner)
By Sascha Krieger
A woman tells her story to a couple (a married one, by the way) of film producers. They are interested, but see room for clarification here, a little tightening of the story there. More people come on board, a writer, the film’s potential star, everyone with their own agenda, their own desire to control the story. So the woman loses hers and she won’t be the only one. Trying to regain control, she gives it up completely. This, admittedly, is a rather rough summary of Martin Crimp’s play The Treatment, an ambivalent title, of course, primarily referring to the term the film industry gives a short project summary used to pitch it, but also evoking the treatment reality and those who live it receive at the hands of a machine that cares about box office numbers and little else. Reality has a difficult position in this play which – while starting out in the false security of a realistic scene – soon drifts off. Into the abstract, the metatheatrical, the thriller and horror spaces. The way people lose control over there lives, the way outside forces appear and take over, the slow building up of a threatening, claustrophobic, stifling atmosphere are reminiscent of the plays of Harold Pinter, even though, unlike in the works of the Nobel Laureate, there is a distinct and recognisable reality The Treatment plays off.
Lyndsey Turners production accentuates this aspect. Unnatural lighting, a faceless white setting that is office, city street, Upper West Side apartment, an acting style that borders on the over the top, that is always a little to clear and emphatic, a soundtrack composed of distant grumbling place the play firmly in the realm of the thriller that taking place in a reality that looks familiar is a few turns of the screw removed. David Lynch comes to mind, maybe even a little hint of Hitchcock. Urban life, it seems, is an absurd, sometimes surreal, horror story that will end in blood and annihilation. The strange tale of the husband who locks his wife in, tapes her mouth and talks of the beauty of the world, who fights the world’s corruption by creating his own miniature world that ironically mirrors the manipulative power structures, that rob people of control over their lives, the very structures he professes to be fighting, feels distant enough on the page. Turner’s direction removes it even further from the audience.
It does so in an uneasy balance: on the one hand mystery thriller, on the other film business satire, the production keeps tilting sometimes to the one, sometimes the other side. Indira Varma is the cliché of the pseudo-creative film producer who fakes interest but manipulates all around her in pursuit of money – until she’s beaten at her own game. Gary Beadle’s John, the star actor taking over the project, is a charismatic master at getting things his way, affable and brutal. Ian Gelder’s writer Clifford is a nice mixture of loser desperate to play the big boys‘ game and willing instrument of the schemes of others, a non-entity playing the lovable grandpa until he’s found out and collapses into nothing. Matthew Needham’s overbearing husband is a grim misanthropist turning into the prototype of a potential urban terrorist. Less successful is Julian Ovenden’s Andrew, the couple’s other half, who starts out like a slimy sleazeball, car-saleseman-style, and suddenly becomes disillusioned and desparately honest lover, two one-dimensional sketches that don’t really fit.
The production’s real problem, however, is Anne, the protagonist, played by Aisling Loftus. She is so much reduced to the status of passive victim that her own story – which at least starts as one of self-empowerment – falls apart before it has really begun. Loftus has little to play with. Sometimes she’s the naive believer in other people’s honestly, sometimes the stubborn defender of truth, she acts bewildered or coolly angry, before falling into a final cliché of madness, broken by a hostile world. Her Anne is a series of projections, she is what people believe her to be, culminating in the wonderful line, spoken by the woman who will ultimately play her: „This is not my idea of Anne.“ The problem is for the „real“ and the „fake“ Anne to clash, there must be a hint of the former. And indeed, the initial scene presents at least a sketch of a self-confident though somewhat naive woman taking control of her life. the other Annes, however, turn out to be puppets, empty shells that contain no substance.
This is the production’s cardinal fault: its obviousness that spells out everything unequivocally, its lack of any ambivalence, its embrace of clichés and stereotypes hollows out story and characters and leaves little more than an idea, a thesis, a statement, that isn’t allowed to come to life. As much as it plays with mystery, it contains none. Here, life is real and art is a lie, its power of transformimg life the play keeps talking about left unexplored. Art equals the film business which is, of course, just a facet, a symbol of urban life which is oppressive, frightening, a place where only the fittest survive (the urban aspect is, rather unsubtly, emphasised by the fact that extras, members of the Almeida’s community company, are constantly passing by). Which leaves Giles Cadle’s final design idea as a highlight. It creates the basement hole in which Anne is held – or does she hold herself? – captive as the only room with individuality and character, a bitter and cruel irony at the end of an evening so desperately lacking in them. And there is one more twist: At the very end, this room is revealed to be part of the larger, faceless plastic world we’ve seen before. A universe within a universe, a reality within another. Which is real? Which is the truth? Is there even such a thing? Quite Lynchean. If only the entire production were like this.