Or, Uncle Bob Cometh. Then Goeth. Then Cometh back again someplace else. Martin Crimp started 2012 with a new play, Play House, at the Orange Tree, an enigmatic portrait of youthful coupledom incorporating existential malaise, fridge-cleaning and a topless handstand. He ends the year at the other theatre with which he’s long been associated, with another new piece that’s a more bracing proposition than Play House, albeit one that looks likely to divide audiences, deeply. (“The worst play I’ve seen in 2012,” was one early tweeter’s verdict.) Cheekily subtitled “an entertainment in three parts,” In the Republic of Happiness is rather different to anything that Crimp’s attempted before. At times, it’s as if a playwright supergroup made up of Dylan Thomas, Bertolt Brecht and Sarah Kane had combined to kick the arse of an Alan Ayckbourn play - Season’s Greetings, specifically. And regardless of the patchiness of the result that’s definitely a project I can get behind.
Proceedings start in the realm of the utmost convention with a family gathering comprising put-upon Mum (Emma Fielding), deaf Dad (Stuart McQuarrie), porn-loving Grandpa (Peter Wight), smug Grandma (Anna Calder-Marshall, a standout) and bickering sisters (Ellie Kendrick and Seline Hizli) tucking into Christmas lunch. The first jolt is familiar enough: the unexpected appearance of Mum’s brother Bob (Paul Ready) and, a bit later, his wife Madeline (Michelle Terry), who - about to leave the country for good, apparently - let loose with a tirade of contemptuous invective directed at each family member in turn.
But just as the audience is settling themselves for a round of comfortably discomforting (and all-too-predictable) barbs and revelations from the family closet, Crimp pulls the rug out from under us. For Bob and Madeline’s appearance fractures not only the family but also the very foundation, style and genre of the play in which they’re appearing, which suddenly morphs into a hybrid species of chat show, confessional, and concert (with Terry in particular revealing herself as a commanding singer, indeed).
The abrupt shift from "naturalism" to an altogether odder mode - in which the actors abandon their characters to speak to the audience directly as a kind of collective consciousness - won’t appeal to those who like their plays to announce their identities early on. But it makes In the Republic of Happiness the particular, confounding and sometimes thrilling experience that it is. The lengthy middle section skewers and satirises a range of current obsessions, with the characters musing on security, identity, agency, the seductions of trauma culture and self-empowerment rhetoric. What keeps you (or at least what kept me) on board are the great rhythms of Crimp’s dialogue, and how surprisingly juicy and funny much of it is, as the speeches become shared arias of blame, complaint, compliance and self-help-schooled self-belief. I was reminded of David Grieg's comments regarding Sarah Kane’s Crave: “The effect of the piece … is surprisingly musical. The text demands attendance to its rhythms in performance, revealing its meanings not line by line, but rather... in the hypnotic play of different voices and themes.” That’s the case here, as the play swerves from poetic reflection to absolute absurdism ("There was trauma in my boss’s past. Why else would she poke a sandwich?") without giving you much time to catch your breath in between.
Though the cast handle these shifts with aplomb, Dominic Cooke’s production might benefit from a wilder approach to the material. And the poorly written and patience-testing final scene seems to me a flat-out mistake. But by turns annoying and insightful, penetrating and pretentious, this play that subverts itself so thoroughly is as formally daring and challenging a work as I’ve seen on stage this year. See it, debate it, have your own qualms about it.