Six figures stand ankle-deep in a blanket of white fluff, kitted out in Adidas and Nike, brightly-coloured, logos blazing. “Why did you send your son away to the sports war,” they demand, “if you wanted him straight back again?” In her brilliantly brutal Sports Play, Elfriede Jelinek (the Nobel Prize winner better known in the UK for her novels than for her rarely-staged dramatic work) makes it clear that there really is no such thing as ‘the beautiful game.’ In a bold, irreverent and (it must be noted) heavily-cut version, Just A Must company serves us a dose of lacerating and even transgressive cynicism, a nice counterbalance to any excessive jubilance triggered by the recent Wimbledon win. “What he demonstrates is just so unvarying”, laments one character of the plight of the famous sportsman, “it’s so sad it makes me want to cry!”
Consisting mostly of a series of weighty monologues passed between characters with such non-descript titles as Victim and Woman, Jelinek’s text might well scream ‘unstageable’ to the casual reader. Luckily for us, Vanda Butkovic’s production is a playful and dexterous thing, unflinching and refreshingly unafraid to mess with theatrical convention. Whilst foregrounding Jelinek’s spectacularly vitriolic voice, Butkovic also ensures that the images put before us are infinitely absorbing. Odd, manic and beautiful, they concede then collide with the spoken text, sometimes elegant but more often enjoyably chaotic. A mother clutches a flickering TV set the way a pregnant woman might cradle her bump, lamenting the loss of a son to the bloody battlefield of commercial sport. A fan begins to question the integrity of his idols before he’s put into a headlock by a cheery sportsman, whilst unperturbed teammates play piggy-in-the-middle around them. Arguments flare up and fade, the words punctuated or drowned out by the harsh screech of whistles, the roar of racing cars and the monotonous pock-pock of the tennis court. All the while, the snow drifts of white fluff covering the stage add a touch of absurdity, even futility, to the cast’s constant physical exertions. The mind is pitched against the body, the body is pitched against itself. Sportsmen try to be gods and women try to be women. The victory? Death, perhaps, if only as a well-deserved rest – and even that’s not so straightforward.
Two hours without an interval is certainly an endurance test of sorts, but we’re in worthy company. Whilst the entire ensemble are a marvel to behold, Delia Remy as the embittered mother and Giorgio Spiegelfield as a dead and almost buried Arnold Schwarzenegger wannabe (yes, you read that correctly) prove themselves most able to handle Jelinek’s intricate and unwieldy prose, seizing upon the traces of humour and humanity hidden within the often hyper-intellectual language. The play itself breaks down in places, Brechtian-style, giving the performers their loose, easy confidence, a rare sense of total presence in the space. We trust them even as they almost fail us, pushing their bodies to the limit and further, degrading each other and themselves with cruel insults and spontaneous violence. At times, this feels like theatre tipping over the edge of itself, pressing up against the boundaries between the performed and the real. Danger, pleasure, exhaustion – difficult viewing, perhaps, but I recommend it nonetheless.
Sports Play is playing at Camden People’s Theatre until the 14 July. For more information and tickets, see the Camden People’s Theatre website.