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The Motherfucker with the Hat - review

The Motherfucker with the Hat - review

Jun 4, 2014 Theatre

The Motherfucker with the Hat
Vibracorp Theatre, directed by Edwin Wright

Basement Theatre
June 4, 2014

 

Here’s a play about people cursed by addiction – and by the heartache that comes from broken love, and by lack of moral fibre, and by the lack of control over their own lives that both causes and is the result of all the above; and its characters go at each other so mercilessly it’s like they’re flaying each other alive. Good riveting stuff, in a tradition that reaches back through Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf all the way to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

But while The Motherfucker with the Hat lives urgently in that tradition, it also betrays it. New York playwright Stephen Aldy Guirgis has learned from the masters about the power of conflict, so he has his characters scream at each other, relentlessly – it’s like the play itself is on crack. What Giurgis didn’t seem to notice is that unless there are periods when the characters are not behaving like animals, it’s going to be hard for us to care for them as much as we should.

Veronica and Jackie were childhood sweethearts, but she’s a crack addict, he’s been to prison and is now an addict in recovery, and while they still love each other they don’t know how to stop their life together unravelling. Ralph is Jackie’s sponsor, a rational explainer kind of guy who turns out to be much less than he seems; Victoria is Ralph’s long-suffering wife; Julio is Jackie’s super-buff gay cousin who loves to cook. Yes, there are clichés.

An endless stream of shouty, cruel one-liners, stereotypes hovering, a tragedy unravelling: it’s like Guirgis has taken Romeo and Juliet, shovelled in as much crude sexual imagery as he can manage (they say “fuck” 275 times, apparently, and describe sex like it’s cage fighting) and then, weirdly, done his best to stuff it all into the form of a bog-standard sitcom.

It’s a bit of a shame. Director Edwin Wright has his actors, led by Saraid Cameron and Calum Gittins, working very hard, and they get lots of things right. You want to keep watching, and they carry you with them through the story. They’re well drilled in their lines (not a thing I can say about every play I’ve seen recently) and their physical engagements feel assured.

But they’re all required to spend so much time strutting and shouting, no one gets a chance to be lost and alone. No one is given a moment to cry. Is this a weakness of play or production? It feels more like play, although problems in a script are problems for the production to overcome.

True, there is some brutally funny stuff: “Being in love with Veronica is like having Godzilla eat my balls every morning”, and, “They fuck like mad dogs chasing heartache.” And, from the gay cousin, “What do you think I do in the gym every day? Sit in the sauna and do reacharounds?”

It’s all tissue covering up the pain, of course, and the actors signal this, but the play doesn’t really let their characters go there. Far too much of it is tell not show, so they talk and talk, always with the exposition. Partly, this is because most of what they talk about is fucking, and they can’t very well do it on stage. But still, “here comes another story” is not a good way to structure a play.

At the end, we’re given a moment where Veronica and Frankie share a memory, or try to. It’s a song, and it represents the best of what they used to be. The best of their humanity. This is deeply sentimental – it’s a Commodores song – but that’s okay: we all carry the sentimentally remembered songs of our youth close to our hearts.

But the play doesn’t make the moment transcendent. If it’s Romeo and Juliet, it’s a version that foregoes the poetry, and in consequence foregoes a real sense of tragedy too. It’s terrible what happens to these people, and by the end we should all, audience as well as characters, be sobbing on the floor – not just for what’s been lost, but because the stupid song has unlocked the grief. After 90 minutes of crack-addict mania, I thought we deserved that.

To June 12

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