REVIEW: Closer, Donmar Warehouse ✭✭✭✭

Closer at the Donmar Warehouse

Donmar Warehouse
13 March 2015
4 Stars

In the programme for the first professional revival in London of Patrick Marber’s prizewinning 1987 play, Closer, the author discusses the genesis of the play. He says:

I’ve said before that it was influenced in some respects by Steven Soderberg’s incredible Sex, Lies and Videotape. But really I wanted to do something that expressed something of the conversation that I and my friends had been having in our twenties and early thirties about life and love, and London and romance and sex and death, and all the things that were concerning and troubling us. In that period of your life before you settle down, find a partner, don’t find a partner, whatever. Betrayal and also The Real Thing were huge influences on Closer too, but they seemed to me to be plays about grown up people who have children, and the condition of Closer is that it’s about people who don’t have children yet.

Watching David Leveaux’ stylish revival at the Donmar Warehouse, where it is now playing, Closer seems not so much a play about people who don’t have children yet as a play about grown up children. Games, set-ups, lies, betrayals, revenge, secrets – the machinations of the four characters (who are the strangers who become lovers/lovers who become strangers) resemble schoolyard activities. Well, perhaps a schoolyard set amongst the fleshpots of Soho.

Marber’s dialogue is sharp, ugly and vicious; it is often very funny too. He cleverly manipulates the audience into believing that the urbane, enlightened discussions between the central foursome are adult when, in truth, they are more childish than adult. And, really, this is the strength of Closer and the key to its enduring appeal. It unsparingly examines Generation Disposable, the modern London crowd that seeks its pleasures wherever it chooses, without compromise or care for consequence.

The sense of inner London is profound in the play and not just because of the emphasis placed on Blackfriars Bridge, Postman’s Park and other specific locations, but also because of the archetypes Marber uses in the play: the spunky, rebellious lost girl; the rapacious business dude; the shambolic, likeable writer; and the sophisticated artist. These four, Alice, Larry, Dan and Anna, have interconnected and unlikely lives in London and Closer unsparingly dissects them, exposing mysteries along the way, the jigsaw-like clues to which, by play’s end, are all disclosed.

Leveaux directs with precision and clarity, building suspense while keeping the unlikeable characters interesting. Bunny Christie’s design is sleek and modern, with lots of flat, clean surfaces, a huge screen on which images and computer messages can be projected and contemporary modular furniture; the look and feel of the set reflects the inter-personal relationships of the central characters – a palette of colours revolving around black, white and grey.

Closer does feel like the shadow of Pinter is hovering close, but not in a bad way. There is also a sense of Stoppard, Hare and Rattigan about the truthful relationships laid bare. Marber is the true descendent of modern British writing. Leveaux breathes life into the cold, treacherous and ambivalent characters so that, while you may never feel you know them well, you come to understand what drives them. You feel a little closer to them.

The play examines the correct role, if there is one, for truth in relationships. If there is a need, is it a need for the whole truth or just that part of the truth that lets life flow forward? Rather cleverly, Marber’s play involves four people and a series of scenes which include all of the first and final meetings of the characters. Lust is examined alongside love, truth against deception. It’s a smorgasbord of human intimacy, the masks and motivations of modern life.

From an acting point of view, the four characters here provide both significant opportunity and the prospect of indelicate failure. It is difficult to play cold, hard people who are single-minded about the sating of their desires without alienating audiences or suggesting an inner warmth desperate to break out. Happily and impressively, Leveaux ensures his cast keeps in ice/vice mode throughout.

Nancy Carroll, one of the warmest, cleverest actresses walking the boards of London, is very impressive as the photographic artist, Anna. Poised and professional, Carroll’s Anna is the character who most actively explores the proposition that the Truth will set you free. Her astonishingly raw confrontation with Larry, where she provides the graphic detail of her infidelity with Dan, is the dramatic and emotional highpoint of the play. Every look, every pause, every phrase, is carefully considered by Carroll; her Anna is a complex construct, a fascinating portrait of a woman who does as she pleases until it no longer pleases her.

As Dan, the hopeless bloke who wants what he can see but doesn’t see what he wants (at least until it is too late), Oliver Chris is in splendid form. He has a natural flair for comedy and uses that to good advantage here, accentuating the goofier aspects of the writer on the make. The scene where Chris is online, pretending to be Anna, and attempting to seduce Larry on her behalf is both funny and skin-crawling. The dramatic high for Chris’ performance comes in the marvellous scene where, in the same instant, his character realises the fact of his love for Alice and she realises she does not love him. Splendidly judged.

As the sleek, predatory and anti-avuncular Larry, Rufus Sewell channels his inner panther to great success. It’s a brooding, calculating performance, bursting with intensity and icy charm. He is mesmerising in the opening scene of Act Two, when Larry takes refuge in a lap-dancing club and the sense of brutal indifference which Sewell brings to the character throughout the play is finely judged. He has a haunted, hollow centre which is almost tangible, and keeps the character from being entirely loathsome. Measured and menacing, Sewell’s Larry is very memorable.

Rachel Redford completes the quartet as Alice but is not in the league of the other performers. She has good focus, and presents a spiky and pouty version of Alice which is quite engaging; but too uneasy in the confrontational lap-dancing scene and unrelaxed throughout the performance, Redford does not get sufficiently under the skin and into the blood of the character.

So integral to the sense of the production are they that each of the lighting (Hugh Vanstone), sound design (Fergus O’Hare) and original music (Corin Buckeridge) could be actual characters in the piece; each contributes to both the sense of London and the detached, ambivalent sensibility.

This is a fine revival of an excellent and confronting play. In some ways, Marber’s writing is more relevant now than it was when it was first written and produced. Leveaux’ careful work ensures that new resonances breathe fresh interest in what is a masterpiece of complex, sexually charged behaviour.

Closer runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 4 April 2015

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