Review: In the Republic of Happiness by Martin Crimp, a Royal Court production
This play divides opinion. A number of people walked out of the performance I saw, but I also heard a lot of appreciative hollering at curtain call. I must admit, I entered the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs with a bias. I am currently rehearsing a production of another Crimp play The Country (details here!) and I wanted to like his newest play, In the Republic of Happiness.
Both plays are, I think, about puncturing the current idols of the middle class and exposing their inherent artifice. In The Country, Crimp shatters the idealization of country life by suggesting that the country is plagued by the same immoralities as the city. In the Republic of Happiness is an assault on the westerner’s tireless pursuit of self-fulfillment, at expense of all else.
Unlike The Country, however, ItRoH is experimental in structure. It begins conventionally enough, with a dysfunctional family Christmas dinner. There’s a pregnant teenager, a porn-loving grandfather, a liberated grandmother. So far, so familiar. Festivities are interrupted by the arrival of Uncle Bob. He and his wife Madeline are on their way to the airport, but he has stopped by to explain, in lurid detail, why Madeline hates every member of the family.
In part II, entitled ‘The Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual’, plot and characters are abandoned and things start to get weird. The stage is transformed into a TV chat show set, and the actors face the audience to deliver narcissistic sermons. They tell us, in the modern parlance of psychobabble, about their obsessions with therapy, modern technology and overcoming personal tragedy. Typical line: ‘I was angry with my partner’s cat. I was angry with my partner’s body. I had flashbacks’.
Structurally, this section is similar to Crimp’s best known play, the drama-school-favourite Attempts on her Life, in that there are no assigned parts for the scripted dialogue. Instead, at every performance, the eight cast members speak spontaneously, not knowing which of them is going to deliver the next line. According to Crimp, as well as keeping the performances fresh, this technique highlights that we are not the individuals we love to think we are; in our desire to be unique, we are all paradoxically the same. The repetitiveness of the dialogue makes this same point, perhaps suggesting that we are socially conditioned to desire the same things. We are members of a cult, all worshiping at the altar of the self. It was during this section that audience members started to evacuate, presumably because of the repetitiveness and/or vulgarity of the dialogue.
Oh and there are some very enjoyable songs to break up the speech. All the actors sing about themselves, X-Factor style. Another platform for trite self-expression, I think.
Finally in part III, Uncle Bob and Madeline return and are in the titular Republic of Happiness. In this dystopia, our obsession with individualism has been pursued to its toxic end. Uncle Bob sings a ‘happy song’, but it’s clear that the long-sought happiness is phony.
Because I have focused on what I understood, I fear this review fails to capture the bizarreness of the play, and the absurdity of much of the dialogue. I wanted to like this play, I really did. And while I admire its inventiveness and incisiveness, I needed those old staples: characters and a plot, to hold my interest. The blitz of self-obsessions in part II grows tiresome, though I guess that was the point.