Writer: Joe Penhall
Director: Roger Michell
Creative collaboration is usually a positive thing in the arts, two talented individuals pooling their genius to develop something extra special. But when money and fame are involved those relationships, and the products that emerge, are enmeshed in fights over intellectual property and writing credit. The latest in the Your Old Vic series, Joe Penhall’s Mood Music pits a powerful producer against a young singer / songwriter as artistic integrity gives way to the commercialisation of their music.
Cat has written a hit song followed by a major US tour but instead of enjoying her new status as a legitimate artist she becomes embroiled in a legal battle with producer Bernard over ownership. Thinking back to the creative process in the studio, both parties explain their side of the story to lawyers and therapists, claiming ultimate credit for individual riffs and lyrics as their past begins to weigh them down.
First performed at the Old Vic where this archive recording was made, Penhall’s 2018 play arrived early in the #MeToo movement and Mood Music struck a particular chord although it had been in development for some time. Two years on its portrayal of the male dominated structures that affect female creativity is still compelling, charting the complex personality of a music industry in which exploitation is rife and the process of selling art ensures the industry rather than the creator ultimately wins.
Mood Music creates a compelling dialogue between two troubled characters – Bernard is arrogant, entitled and entirely self-serving while Cat’s narcotic addiction, drinking problem and insistence on authenticity make it difficult for others to help her. But Penhall never loses site of how Cat’s status as a young, female musician make her vulnerable and powerless against the forces stacked against her. The inevitability of the outcome illustrates that she never stood a chance.
As an archive piece, the lighting in this recording is a little over-exposed at times and the microphones occasionally struggle to pick-up dialogue over music being played live on-stage, but the way Penhall tells this story across the 1 hour and 50-minute running time is engaging, aided by several cameras around the thrust stage that mean the actors are never too far away.
With no scene breaks, time and place become fluid as scenes from the respective psychotherapy sessions, conversations with lawyers and historic studio segments flow into one another, helping to build an intricacy in the narrative that prevents the play from becoming two-dimensional. Penhall skilfully weaves conversations together as Bernard and Cat react to words or questions spoken in other scenes, giving it a pacey feel while emphasising the ways in which music intrinsically binds them together.
Ben Chaplin gives a finely judged performance in a slightly tricky role and his Bernard is smug, ruthless and controlling. He is also incredibly charismatic, often very funny with a dry humour that Chaplin uses to unlock Bernard’s success as a musician and to explain why Cat has such mixed reactions to his influence. There is vulnerability there too, a note on the hereditary influence of abusive qualities that don’t excuse but try to explain him, while Chaplin gives him just enough self-awareness to make him dangerous.
Seána Kerslake as Cat may lack Chaplin’s magnetism, but she exudes the many contradictory impulses in her character. The idolisation of her musician father and its clear transference to Bernard sit alongside a huge sense of exposure and exploitation as the audience learns more about her tour experience. In the flashback collaboration scenes Kerslake is almost the more aggressive of the two, often rude and refusing to listen, revealing both her naivety about the music business and equally the tragedy of a confident and talented woman later destroyed by external claims to her creativity.
More recently, David Hare’s Bitter Wheat tried to plot a similar course, using humour to address misconduct in the film industry, and it was a shameful failure. Penhall avoids sexual exploitation in Mood Music and while a necessary part of the discussion taking place on stage, there is no such obvious impropriety between Bernard and Cat. “It’s deeper than that for both us” Cat explains, a slow realisation instead that talented people are being manipulated by everyone around them all the time. Artistic integrity and credit may seem important but when collaborators fall out, it is the lawyers and the therapists who really cash in.
Available here until 14 July 2020