Writer: Patrick Marber
Director: Clare Lizzimore
Patrick Marber’s Closer, first performed in 1997, was dazzling. The play about sex and lust, love and lies was ground breaking. It asks if intimacy is ever possible. Do you need the fully unexpurgated truth about your partner to get closer? Alice meets Dan, then Anna meets Larry. But powerful attraction to each other’s partners leads to betrayal and break up. Marber’s daring dialogue and acute attentiveness to the texture of the 90s felt incredibly fresh. So can a new production be any more than a nostalgic retread? Clare Lizzimore’s dynamic production at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith triumphantly proves it can. It’s a thrilling piece of theatre: witty, immediate and tinglingly sharp. Indeed thanks to Lizzimore’s imaginative staging, perfect direction and atmospheric use of sound and movement, Closer now has a whole new intriguing dimension.
Crucially, we’re likely to be more squeamish today about the play’s sexual politics. In particular the fact that Alice is a stripper – a job she gives up to live with Dan, but returns to when their relationship falls apart. She is the focus of the play’s ruthless focus on male sexual desire and its dependence on fantasy and voyeurism. But the reason we never see Alice (or the fabulous Ella Hunt who plays her) as exploited is that Lizzimore uses subtle Brechtian devices to give distance. In moody darkness behind the on-stage band, a chorus of four actors in black silently respond to what is happening centre stage. You may be only faintly aware of their unobtrusive presence. But in presenting them as the Chorus, Lizzimore hints at the play’s roots in classical tragedy. As such, they offer a mute commentary on what happens in the foreground, invites us to take the long view. This device works particularly well in an erotic sex scene late on between bruised former lovers, Alice and Dan, who are trying to make a go of things again. The distant presence of the Chorus means the scene is not exploitative, but rather makes us aware of the long history of such stories of love, desire and disillusion.
This production’s overall design imaginatively evokes 90s culture. Arun Ghosh’s music weaves a suggestive soundscape of the period with everything from Primal Scream’s stirring opening of Trainspotting (tremendous drumming by Radhika Aggarwal) to Portishead’s refrain ‘Give me a reason to love you,’ poignantly sung by Hunt. To dress Alice as a stripper as Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction again embeds the idea that what we are watching is not so much the truth, but a performance of the truth.
This is echoed in a memorable scene of chatroom sex. In the original production, Larry’s panting demands for ever-more-explicit details from his anonymous correspondent were projected on screen – a revolutionary device at a time when email was brand new. But this time round the scene is speeded up and tightened. We were always aware that Larry’s fantasy female is in fact the trouble-making Dan, but now Jack Farthing makes his role deliberately performative, dryly voicing his responses. This works brilliantly even if the wet knickers joke gets more laughs that the memorable use of perineum did in the original.
The acting is first-rate. Nina Toussaint-White’s mature, sophisticated Anna contrasts with Ella Hunt’s fragile and intriguing Alice. Jack Farthing as Dan exudes suave self-confidence which masks his inability to trust love. Sam Troughton is perfect as the mercurial, blokeish Larry, both sexually aggressive and emotionally vulnerable.
Clare Lizzimore’s direction is breathtaking. It’s a particularly inspired idea to run two separate scenes of encounter into one when Anna meets up with Larry to get him to sign their divorce papers, and is manoeuvered into sex divorcing Larry. In the original she subsequently meets up with her lover Dan who suspiciously demands details. Putting the two scenes together makes the relationships collide and explode in a whole new way.
Runs until 13 August 2022