I am a great admirer of Simon Stephens' work, but was a bit let down by this trilogy of one-acts set around Heathrow Airport. Inept direction (Katie Mitchell) was a great deal of the problem, but WASTWATER seems less developed than Stephens' other work. "We're all connected," says the sociopath in the final play. There are some connections between the characters in the three plays, but they are unconvincing plot points, not connections that orm the works or their characters. The play is typical of Stephens's work in its eerie move toward violence.
"Do you believe in good people and bad people," one character asks, and the play progresses from the good (a doting foster mother) to the bad (an unremittingly nasty woman who traffics in children). The plays are linked by tears, though characters don't always know why they are crying. Each scene ends with characters moving toward an embrace. In the first play, set in a run-down house in a village near Heathrow, a middle-aged woman bids farewell to one of her favorite foster children, a young man who is leaving for Canada. The second play takes place in an airport hotel. Two people, both married, are about to go to bed together. She wants to be slapped: he has never hurt anybody. The slaps are the only physical connection we see in their encounter. Finally, we are in an abandoned warehouse. A female psycopath interrogates a decent married man. She works for an organization that sells third world children to couples who have found it difficult to adopt legally. He endures her humiliating questioning because he really wants a child. So WASTWATER moves from a tender scene to scenes of increasing creepiness, ending with an awkward meeting between a man and the daughter he has just purchased. Stephens is a superb writer and there were dramatically powerful moments here, but not the sense of inexorable movement toward and away from a catastrophe one finds in his best work. These are relatively static works.
Watching this preview of WASTWATER was an odd experience. The young Royal Court audience wanted to laugh at moments in the play that really weren't funny. Other moments cried out for more mordantly humorous presentation. Director Katie Mitchell, whose work is always humorless even when humor is called for, created a typically emotionally arid production. The final play, which reminded me of some of Harold Pinter's work, an interrogation fulled with bizarre, irrelevant questions that should have been somewhat humorous, was relentlessly nasty (some in the audience left). WASTWATER gave us Mitchell in her hyper realistic mode, as opposed to Mitchell wrapping the furniture in plastic or Mitchell's "Let's Make a Video" mode. At least it wasn't Mitchell in her "let's light the stage with one candle" mode. Nonetheless, her choices were characteristically odd. In the first thirty-minute play, Mitchell had the two characters remain motionless in a doorway for the entire play which gets frustrating to watch on a stage. During the second play in the hotel room, the characters rarely stopped pacing which seemed more appropriate if a bit hectic. At the end of the evening, after what should have been the final curtain of a very intense scene, Mitchell had the curtain rise again and made the audience look at the empty warehouse set for two minutes. Why other than to leave her audience baffled, not with the play but with her choice? It certainly let the air out of what went before. She really is an irritating director. Mitchell is supposedly beloved in Germany where they love bizarre theatre that explodes narrative logic. I'm not a total conservative viv-a-vis theatrical presentation, but after watching her work for twenty years, I just don't think Katie Mitchell is very good at what she does. Obviously not everyone here agrees with me -- she continues to get work.
There were some excellent performances, one in each play. Linda Bassett was as always radiant as the foster mother, but she was saddled with an amateurish scene partner. Paul Ready was pitch perfect in the second play as the man who discovers the pleasure of violence, and Angus Wright played the decent, desperate man convincingly in the third play. I didn't think Jo McInnes, Ready's scene partner, or Amanda Hale as the nasty child seller fully inhabited their parts yet.
WASTWATER. Royal Court Theatre. April 1, 2011.