It’s not hard to imagine where the world is headed. With our constant bombing exchanges and cultural conflicts being a lethal topic of hot-headed shout-outs, the world of Wallace Shawn’s new play Evening at the Talk House at the National Theatre doesn’t seem like a galaxy far far away. Underneath the talk and casualty of it all, there’s a knife-sharp statement on the future of our behaviour – a not-so-unforeseeable future where civilians agree to murder others who are blacklisted in our culture because they pose a “threat”. It’s a dangerous thought and not too fantastical if you think about it. Unfortunately it’s well buried under what seems a somewhat grey reunion at the Talk House.
Robert (Josh Hamilton) used to be a playwright in all its unsuccessfulness, writing heroic plays no one seemed to care about except his own acquaintances. So he decided theatre was on its deathbed and went into TV comedy writing. Ten years down the line he’s mildly successful and finds himself invited to a reunion of the cast and crew of his last play, Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars – a romance of knights and everything wildly contrasting the reality in which these people operate. We are spoon-fed all this in the form of a ten-minute monologue before the gauze is flown out and the action unfolds, all slightly dated in its staging despite Hamilton’s charm and despite having such a brilliant director as Ian Rickson on board. The scene is set on a gloomy room at the Talk House, with the reunited crew reminiscing on the past and on which one of their friends has been killed. The odd, sinister cheerfulness of the company is broken by Dick (Shawn himself), a run-down actor who haunts the Talk House like a ghost of the past and an ominous forewarning of the future, hiding from the friends that tried to beat the last life out of him. Shawn’s presence is what drives the play and resembles the darkness of the ideas behind all the talking. Unfortunately the party talk endlessly, but only touch on the cruelty of the world and what the play is really about so ambiguously, that it’s like a hooking taster, promising some answers and revelations but never fulfilling them. The attendees at the Talk House seem so awfully pleased with themselves that highlighting the world in which they operate would have been a brilliant contrast – it is after all revealed to us that these people have settled for money by murdering others abroad, ‘targeting’ people who propose a threat to our society and thereby losing all empathy toward the ‘others’. A chilling reality we could stumble into if we’re not careful.
Shawn’s writing has its satirical finger cleverly on the pulse of what a future civilian barbarity with a ‘them and us’ mentality would cause. However, despite a fantastic cast and beautiful performances from the man himself, Anna Calder-Marshall as Nellie and Sinéad Matthews’s death-desperate Jane, we don’t feel part of their world. It’s so surreal and down-played it could be anything – the rules of the game are not clear to us, so we stumble over the action trying to figure out what the play really is about. This is a shame as the stellar cast and Rickson have the potential to take Shawn’s dark, dystopian world to where it really chills us.
In the space of the evening, the Talk House becomes all talk and little action – something that’s interesting but sadly doesn’t change your world.
Evening at the Talk House is playing at the National Theatre until 30 March. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.