28 April 2017
With a few tweaks, Martin Crimp's 1993 black comedy The Treatment has been updated to the present day in Lyndsey Turner's new production at the Almeida. But even without these, the play remains as relevant today as it was nearly a quarter of a century ago, portraying a disorienting urban world where dirt and violence lurk under the pristine surfaces.
Set in New York City, it is unsettling from the outset where we see a young woman, Anne, in a clinically white office falteringly telling two smart professionals, Jennifer and Andrew, about an episode of violent abuse at the hands of her husband, bound and gagged with electrical tape and locked behind a steel door in their apartment. But Jennifer's delight at hearing the details quickly confirms that Anne is not here for treatment but to allow producers to work up her personal story into a treatment for a film. As their assistant, an out-of-work playwright and an actor join the project, it explores what is “reality”, from the ambiguities around Anne's experiences to the question of whether “art transforms life and shows us what's real”. It has a satirical edge in its depiction of film-making, especially when two characters dismantle Anne's true-life story as unbelievable, concluding that she herself “is not my idea of Anne”.
In the urban world of The Treatment, everyone is using each other, either sexually or to further their careers, or just out of anger, but it is often unclear just how much they are complicit in their exploitation. Crimp's city is a stressful place, with a constant background of muzak, car alarms, sirens and other noise, thanks to sound designer Christopher Shutt, while at one point three pairs of characters speak simultaneously at the same volume, leaving you exhausted trying to follow them all. The city is literally crowding in around the characters thanks to 15 actors recruited from the local community who constantly dart back and forth across the stage, cleverly demonstrating the distracting hubbub of urban life. Giles Cadle's sets present two sides of this world – the clinically clean sheen of offices, designer restaurants and tastefully decorated apartments and the dirtier reality of the Manhattan streets and subway.
Aisling Loftus is perfectly pitched as Anne, out of her depth in the city but with a dark steeliness below the surface. Indira Varma is fantastic as the single-minded producer Jennifer who blindly sweeps everyone along with her including her unhappy husband and business partner played by Julian Ovenden. Ellora Torchia impresses as their ambitious assistant Nicky, part of a faultless cast that also includes Gary Beadle as self-absorbed actor John, Ian Gelder as desperate playwright Clifford and Matthew Needham as Anne's bewildered husband.
Ben Onwukwe gives us the most memorable image from the play as a blind taxi driver who relies on his passengers to tell him when he's approaching a red light. This terrifying, unforgettable motif hints at the more abstract elements of Crimp's later plays including another urban nightmare, The City. Compared to these more recent works, The Treatment feels rather tame but, in this revival, it remains a mesmerising, entertaining dark comedy that conjures up the confusing perplexities of modern life.
Running to June 10, 2017.
Photos: Marc Brenner