The National Theatre and Headlong’s production of Duncan Macmillan’s new play, People, Places & Things, has got a well-merited transfer to the West End at Wyndham’s Theatre, with a stunning central performance by Denise Gough that has got the never superlative-shy London critics over-excited. It is a gruelling role, with Ms Gough scarcely off stage for two and a half hours and even, at one point, transformed into eight magically choreographed clones.
We first see her going to pieces as Nina in a production of The Seagull, and are immediately aware that what we’re witnessing is a self-medication meltdown. When she asks her mother to clear the drugs and booze from her flat, and says to her, “I’ll stop calling you a c*** when you stop being a c***,” we know we’re dealing with a strong personality, who is probably capable of being abusive to others as well as to herself.
Perhaps we’re not so aware of the theatre as subject as well as setting of what we are seeing – but there are clues in the fact that some of the audience is seated on the stage enclosed in the clinical white frame of Bunny Christie’s ingenious set. In a flash Nina (who gives her own name as Emma) isn’t an actress on stage, but a wretch in the reception area of an actual clinic, begging for help for her addiction as desperately as her Irish wit and irony will allow.
She may be so disturbed as to be deranged, but she is a hard nut, with an upper lip that curls with a faint, but definite, hint of disdain.
At first the doctor/therapist, wonderfully doubled by Barbara Marten (who also plays “Emma’s” mother) is unsure she’s a suitable case for treatment. The reason: this institution uses a 12-point programme, such as that of Alcoholics Anonymous, which insists on belief in a “higher power,” has a Big Book (in which Emma writes critical marginalia), and maintains that addiction is life-long – once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. Most important, such programmes assert that the individual is fundamentally powerless without the reinforcement of the group and, of course, the higher power.
The great thing about Mr Macmillan’s play is that it is not an argument, but a drama, but it is a drama with an argument. Ms Gough’s character, who later says her name is Sarah, isn’t philosophising, and isn’t logic-chopping when she disputes aspects of the programme. She is suffering – physically as well as psychologically – and embodies the premises, steps and conclusions of the clash over the God bits, the surrender, and the obsessiveness of 12-step platforms.
This is where the superb direction by Jeremy Herrin comes in, with plenty of help from the movement person, Polly Bennett; for Ms Gough has to tell us what’s happening in her psyche by her body language at least as much as by the lines she speaks. There was some dissent about this among my companions, who felt that, as we all know what it’s like to be off our heads with drink and drugs, an actor has to give us something we don’t already know in order to convince us. By this strict criterion there’s perhaps a little too much tic and twitch and Gough’s performance, but I have to say I was won over by what her body language conveyed in the last scenes when she was clean. And the supporting ensemble is so sympathetic and disciplined that you could almost believe they were an AA group, whose chief therapeutic practice is role-playing.
One thing wrong about AA is that it encourages one kind of role-playing, at the expense of several others (e.g., the Sinclair Method using an opiate blocker, and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) as is made clear in the excellent programme essay by Jon Stewart. The most difficult part for most people to play in the 21st century is that of religious believer (“Step 6: We’re entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”). There are other problems, such as the requirement of total abstinence. (AA has its roots in evangelical Christianity, and so is big on the concept of “backsliding”.) When Gough’s character tries to join the group in prayer, and wants to know why she is obliged to say “amen,” another character has the best line in the play: “Saying ‘amen’ is like pressing ‘send’.”
The play – and Stewart’s text, raise the question of whether AA ought nowadays to be the default solution for addiction. But the play does this in an immensely clever way, with great theatricality, even a teasing meta-theatricality, and a curtain line of the very best kind – one that leaves you a little puzzled about just what you have been watching for the last couple of hours.