“The City”, Sydney Theatre Company, 28 July 2009

It’s dangerous to refer to a situation in a play as “awkward and artificial”, because there is a very real possibility that the audience will conflate the comment with the play itself. Martin Crimp’s The City is one such play, a sort of Synecdoche, New York Jr that doesn’t make you question reality so much as it makes you question whether you could be bothered to take anything at more than face value.
I’m inclined to believe that it’s a collection of interesting parts in search of a whole to be the sum of. A stage consisting of nothing but uncomfortably steep steps that is occasionally bathed in complete darkness asks the audience to accept contextual clues as to where we are: it scarcely matters, because we’re always somewhere around the house of two people whose names are irrelevant. It looks like they’re uncomfortable, and this is likely the case.

The City amounts to a collection of monologues masquerading as conversations between a married couple, their eight year old daughter and their neighbour over the course of a year, presumably in this time of Global Financial Crisis (man, I can hardly wait for the GFC to be over).

The monologues are interesting, covering as they do the wife’s trip to a book festival, the husband’s encounter with a boy he had bullied in his school days and, most interestingly and inexplicably, the involvement of the neighbour’s husband in a secret army carrying out a secret war in a secret city, killing everyone inside so that they can then go in and kill the remainder of citizens “clinging to life”. Sometimes the monologues are even related to each other, if we’re lucky – but they are essentially selfish pieces of work.
The thing is that The City is puzzle theatre, and puzzle theatre doesn’t work so well when you couldn’t be bothered to solve the puzzle. The actors acquit themselves well, although I continue to feel awkward whenever actors shout in a play and go red in the face. The “awkward and artificial” line can definitely be applied here, particularly as the dialogue is written in a self conscious mode of constant clarification of meaning and motivation. It’s plainly supposed to be how people “really” talk, but part of the point of movies, plays and books is that they represent the real rather than actually being real. Fictive performance is replication; more real than real.

In trying to both appear real and to make the audience question reality, The City divorces itself from both the audience and the play’s “duty” to maintaining the illusion of reality. It’s interesting but nothing else. It’s hard to know how we’re supposed to take characters who we can’t gauge the meta-levels of.
This was an instance where it really felt there was, more than a fourth wall, a glass screen between the audience and the performer. Reading the program, it seems that this was Crimp’s intent, so I suppose that, on some level, The City was a success.

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