'In the Republic of Happiness' review or 'A punch in the face on an ice cold night.'

'In the Republic of Happiness', Martin Crimp
Royal Court Theatre, Wednesday 12th December 2012

Martin Crimp's writing feels like being punched in the face on an ice cold night. What a brutal joy it is to finally see one of Crimp's plays, rather than his translations, grace The Royal Court Stage.

The opening initially feels rather conventional. We're at a tense family dinner and the dialogue is cool, cruel and very funny. Two grandparents add strange accents to an already awkward scene. The grandmother (Anna Calder-Marshall) is horrendously smug as she recalls sweeping around the city in a taxi, gleefully watching her fare tick upwards; 'The fact that I'm paying for my happiness makes it even sweeter!' Grandpa (Peter Wight) is going senile but this has only heightened his disappointment in his son; 'The moon was too far – he couldn't be bothered!' It's very, very funny but the laughs come from a truthful and disturbing place.

When Uncle Bob (Paul Ready) makes his surprise entrance, he's wearing a silver bomber jacket. There's a whiff of the astronaut about him. He's going – or at least he wants to go – where his family dare not even dream of. As Bob pours scorn on his estranged family, hammering them with home truths, the atmosphere gurgles, ugly and desperate. Ready's Bob has a slightly bewildered air about him and his fierce accusations are tinged with a strange, childish innocence.

Bob's girlfriend – on whom's behalf Bob is speaking – falls into the room, as if dropping from the sky. She initially plays it nice (Michelle Terry – why can't you be in every play?) and all the stupid hypocrisy of polite middle class chat is painfully exposed. And then this girl – so obviously out of synch with the rest of the gang – bursts into song, as the stage glows red. Judgement day has come and it feels very weird.

Just as we might be settling into this exceptionally unsettling atmosphere, Crimp whisks his play in another direction. The family take a 'non' bow at the front of the stage as a TV studio assembles behind them. On the screen, behind the gang, is a block of rainbow lines, which only appear when the TV programming is completely fucked.

What follows is one of the funniest acts I've ever seen in the theatre. I snorted with laughter. I got the giggles so badly I nearly had to leave.

The act is entitled 'The Five Essential Freedoms of The Individual' and is a lacerating attack on the current status quo and all those supposedly 'liberating' aspects of today's society that are, in reality, suffocating us. Scanners at airports, 'refreshing' holidays, spoilt kids running riot, the power of the individual and our unwavering belief in our right to be happy are all explored and exposed for what they really are: ridiculous.

Each character earnestly pronounces a sombre belief ('I have the right to therapy'), which is then picked up by another characters and tweaked, until the initial statement is morphed out of recognition. Protestations of individualism echo down the row of actors until they eventually become meaningless. A right to therapy is introduced for legitimate reasons ('I decided I need therapy – I'd never talked to anyone about my childhood') but, as it trickles down the line, is brilliantly undercut. Crimp's merciless logic transforms righteous statements into absurd outbursts with just a few tiny shifts.

The cast is brilliant – and directed with such subtle control by Dominic Cooke. The actors never anticipate the laughs. They launch themselves into the profound and ridiculous with equal commitment. And then there are the songs; little explosions of pop at the end of each segment, which amp up the absurd atmosphere. Even when the characters sing of their rights as an individual, they sound like popstars we've heard a million times before. The whole set-up resembles the X-Factor; manufactured individualism at its worst.

The act comes to an abrupt end and we're jolted into a new space: a bright white office with a window looking out onto a sort of photocopied countryside. This is where Bob and his girlfriend have escaped to, only Bob is not happy; 'Click on my happy face!' The scene is obscure and hard to connect with but perhaps that's the point. Even Bob's utopia resembles a computer screen, with the same lifeless landscapes and empty connections.


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