A tiny cluster of well-healed spectators on the steps of the Royal Court Theatre last Saturday evening made an ostentatious display of ‘what tosh’ as they publically aired their intention not to go back in for the second half of Dennis Kelly’s The Ritual slaughter of Gorge Mastromas. Perhaps the play’s overarching critical take on rampant capitalism was a bit too close to home? You certainly need both stomach and stamina for Kelly’s new drama, a dark morality tale for contemporary capitalist times running at two hours and forty five minutes, and directed by the Royal Court’s newly appointed Vicky Featherstone, the theatre’s first ever female Artistic Director.
Capitalism and its capacity to dehumanise has long claimed the attention of British playwrights espousing leftish sympathies. Back in the eighties, post-Brechtian refrains characterised a political theatre landscape concerned with demonstrating the social injustices of an ‘us and them’ Thatcherite economy. The nineties and beyond have seen dramatists looking to make visible the invisible, escalating flows of a global capitalism. And so from plays such as Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (1987) to Lucy Prebble’s Enron (2009), the enduring question has been how to form theatre committed to bursting capitalism’s epic bubble.
Kelly’s new play is no exception as it gives us Gorge Mastromas scaling the slippery slopes of corporate business. The cast of seven open the play, delivering a shared narration that relates Gorge’s schoolboy years and how early on his life is shaped by the choices he makes, choices that determine one course over another, choices caught between acting out of goodness or cowardice. Acting out the scene depicting Gorge (Tim Brooke), now a young man on the bottom rung of a multi-national company about to go under, Alan Williams as a broken captain of industry and Pippa Haywood as a ruthless, corporate, top girl (both excellent), notched up the grotesque edge to the ways in which ‘serious money’ depends on the power to lie, deceive, and betray. The penny drops as Gorge realises goodness and cowardice to be one and the same thing. Hereafter, his mantra is: take what you want, lie to get it, and believe absolutely in the lies you tell. There is a zeitgeisty feel to the play, hard not as you watch it to feel that the Mastromas creed is one that our morally bankrupt wheelers and dealers in the world of business and politics live by.
And so we witness Gorge transform from an ordinary, unprepossessing young man, lacking in charisma, into a monstrous money-maker, sucking the life out of others, notably his virtuous victim Louisa (Kate O’Flynn), a woman with a damaged (abused) past who becomes his wife. Unlike a tale by Dickens where social wrongs may be imagined as righted (such as a repentant Scrooge electing for a brighter future), Kelly’s story has little to offer by way of the remorseful. Without giving too much away it does conclude with a glimpse of the life George might have had had he not lost his feeling for humanity.
In the ensemble narrations which interrupt the scenes, the audience are repeatedly asked are we ‘sick yet’, ‘disgusted yet’? How monstrous does capitalism have to be before we give up on it is the underlying question. I wasn’t totally discomforted by the play in the politicising way that I think Kelly is after. I did feel certain of the drama’s displeasures with big business delivered in his often times sharp and witty dialogue, and in the ensemble moments of shared narration. The design too had a good eye for the rise/downfall of Gorge: a star-lit canvas of possibility at the opening and a visual encoding of capitalism as a dung hill of detritus in its closing.
And yet, and yet, a part of me was distracted by the feeling of having been here before. I left not at the interval but at the very end, feeling that there is more that can be said about our contemporary, Faustian pact with capitalism in a condensed, experientially formed epic such as Churchill’s apocalyptic Far Away, than in Kelly’s gargantuan plotting of Gorge’s (and our) downfall.