at the Duke of York’s Theatre
by Polly Stenham
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Design: Mike Britton
with Lindsay Duncan, Hannah Murray, Matt Smith, Catherine Steadman, Julian Wadham
Tube riders litter the train with newspapers, which other riders pick up to alleviate their boredom. Coming home last night I saw a grisly headline on one of these throwaways, “Sixth Stab Murder in Week of Death.” In London? The first sentence of the story was horrifying. “A schoolboy has been stabbed to death with a foot-long knife by a gang of thugs in south London.” It was within memory that a single shooting death made national news. Compared to America, the UK is still a kingdom where the lion lies down with the lamb. Verbal and psychological violence are another matter.
Critics were astonished that a 19-year-old girl could write That Face, the play I saw last night at the Duke of York on St. Martin’s Lane within the shadow of the famous church, St. Martin in the Fields. That Face is ninety minutes of naked family violence.The precocious author, Polly Stenham, shows amazing control over her writing. As an upper-crustfamily from hellspirals down while hysteria ratchets up,each member is vividly alive. Their aliveness is bitter, and they’ve willingly jumped into the pit, but you can’t take your ears away. Stenham could possibly become a great writer; her debut play already feels like literature.
Unless you’ve been sleeping in a cocoon since The Glass Menagerie, weirdly dysfunctional families aren’t exactly original on stage: Mommy drinks, Daddy has run off, Baby is gay/crazy/drugged out of his gourd.Stenham doesn’t depart from the formula, and the bare set, adorned withonly a rumpled bed, exhibitsthe mother waking up together with her teenage son. Yes, you get it. Mother will spend the rest of the play enthroned on that bed, either ranting crazily with a wine bottle in hand or fondling her son in adoration, especially That Face, which has been her fixation since the boy was born.
The seaminess of this scene prepares us for other, similar ones: the daughter who is away at boarding school (there are two kids, as in The Donna Reed Show)pumps a schoolmate with an overdose of Valium before pummelling her face nearly to a pulp. The father returns from Hong Kong, where he fled after divorcing the crazy alcoholic, to keep the daughter from being expelled. Outside the family unit we meet only one other character, a minx who goes to school with the daughter and coolly accepts all the preceding by offering to sleep with anyone who comes near, regardless of gender.By the final scene the mother hasdressed her son in silk nightie, lipstick, and diamonds, a costume the very conventional Dad isn’t thrilled to behold. She puts her hands over her womb and says to the boy, “Always here, always here” and walks offstage head held high, presumably to a posh clinic.
The audience was mesmerized and broke out in cheers. Mere plot description can’t tell you why, nor can close comparison with Pinter, who gobsmacked the theatre-goingpublic with domestic savagery and galloping Freudian motives in The Homecoming. That’s a greater play, and Stenham isn’t Pinteresque in style – she’s not symbolic or figurative in any way, just flat out raw, punctuated with wit. That Face owes a great deal of its acclaim to the performance ofLindsay Duncan as Martha, the overweening, stupefied, unbelievably narcissistic mother. A monster in a peignoir, she wreaks havoc and yet creates sympathy by her willingness to descend into hell. She goes there for unknown reasons. We meet Martha in a late stage of decay. Her kids are desperately trying to keep her intact for the sake of the family. They can’t bear to lose both parents after Dad has run off.
When Blanche Dubois is carted off to the loony bin, something like normality returns to the life of Stanley and Stella. In That Face brother and sister are left behind, and Mia, the younger of the two, mumbles, “We’re okay, we’re okay.” It’s a moving ending, not for the obvious irony, but because a child has been reduced to this thread of reassurance in order not to die psychologically.I went into the play thinking of verbal violence as an English cliché. By the end, I believed that Stenham has transcended it.