Fever pitch

Wallace Shawn's plays have a habit of offending people. But that hasn't stopped Clare Coulter from taking his words and performing them in the privacy of people's own living-rooms. By Adrian Turpin
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The Independent Culture
`My plays," the American Wallace Shawn told the New Yorker magazine last year, "are not actually performed in my own land." Which will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen The Fever. The day may come when a 90-minute Marxist-inspired, guilt-inspiring monologue storms 42nd Street (in a musical version, perhaps, entitled simply: Fever!). But when Shawn first performed The Fever in his home city, in 1990, it was swiftly butchered by the New York Times's infamous critic Frank Rich. "A musty radical chic stunt destined to be parodied," was his dismissive judgement.

Six years on, The Fever begins its first full London run at the Royal Court tonight, given an extraordinary performance - as anyone who saw it during the 1996 Edinburgh Festival will tell you - by the Canadian actress Clare Coulter. It comes at a fascinating point in Shawn's career as a writer. Far from being parodied, in Britain at least, he has grown in stature of late.

It was at the National Theatre last April that he chose to premiere The Designated Mourner, his ambitious three-hander about the death of culture (love him or hate him, no one can say Shawn shrugs the big issues). Starring Mike Nichols and Miranda Richardson and directed by David Hare, for many it confirmed that Shawn had finally left his cult status behind. Here was a playwright to rank alongside Sam Shepard and David Mamet.

Quite what The Fever will do for his newly minted reputation will be interesting to see. Frank Rich was far from unique in his heated response to the play. There is something about the play's confection of politics and art that inspires extreme reactions, both for and against. A woman recounts how she once woke up in a Third World hotel with a fever. What follows is an account of the numbness that enveloped her as she realises that her Western comforts can only be bought at the expense of the poor. "The life I live is irredeemably corrupt," she declares. "It has no justification."

It's a simple tale, told in a style that's at once dense, colloquial and poetic (verbose is a favourite word of abuse among Shawn's detractors). The speaker loops back on herself. She worries away at the meaning of what she is saying. And then she goes for the audience's jugular, stabbing away with the words "you" and "yours": "Have you ever had any poor friends?" or "Your life is another example of getting away with something."

Not surprisingly, a lot of people resent this kind of liberal browbeating, especially when it comes from the pen of a "Manhattan Marxist" whose father edited the New Yorker for 35 years and who has a comfortable parallel career as a Hollywood actor (remember the funny little bald baddie in The Princess Bride, the geekily lovelorn teacher in Clueless, Vanya in Vanya on 42nd Street?). And would you trust to preach politics a man who once sold shares in himself to raise money from his friends?

For others, though, the play has been that tabloid cliche, a life-changing experience. Not least for Coulter herself, who has spent much of the past five years acting The Fever, not just in the theatre but in people's houses, leaving behind a promising career and a loving audience (she's been called Canada's Diana Rigg) to make a living by passing the hat at the end of each performance.

The preface to The Fever explains that "the piece was written so that it could be performed in anyone's home", which Shawn himself did, but with nothing like Coulter's zeal. After a four-week season at Toronto's Tarragon theatre in 1991, she began a marathon that has taken her throughout her own country and to America, Berlin, Paris and Britain. If Shawn was a prophet unrecognised in his own land, then Coulter had unwittingly become an evangelist.

"I would never have thought of going into people's homes and performing. The suggestion came from Wally [Shawn]," she says speaking - and I can't help finding this faintly unsettling - in the same still, gently inflected East Coast accent she uses on stage. "I decided to do it kind of at the last moment, and most theatres were either unable or unwilling to schedule it, but I thought, `I'll go anyway'. So I sent out word to everyone I knew that I was travelling across Canada, and then asked for the address and telephone number of anyone they thought might enjoy the play, and gradually the whole thing grew into this huge address book. Wherever I went I'd contact people in the city ahead of me and say, `I'm coming, and your friend says that you'd like this in your house'. "

One of the first things she learnt was that it was impossible to predict how each audience - nuns, farmers, students, city professionals - would react. "There are places," she says, "where it seems there is hardly a soul that does not think it is a momentous experience." But life as a middle-aged, middle-class Jeremiah, come to breach the privacy of people's homes and speak the unspeakable, is not always a comfortable experience. ("If you expect people to love you and to like what you're saying, then you'd better not do this play," was the author's advice when Coulter first took on the role.) When the anger comes, it's both tempered and exacerbated by the fact that this is a performance taking place outside the safety of a theatre.

"Audiences try to forgive me for having to say such terrible things. They know I'm not the writer. I'm just an actor. So they don't attack me in the way they would Wally. They may be angry with their hosts for having tricked them into it, because a lot of people are invited to something where they don't know what they're going to hear. People will attack the play aesthetically but what they're really rejecting is what it's saying. Wally writes to what you might call the blind spot in a person or in society. The spot between the eyes.

"I think there's a lot of denial on my part about how difficult it can be. There's a time-bubble of grace for me when I enter a house. And then when the evening comes and I've done the performance and sometimes people have hated it..." She pauses. "Well, one woman loathed it so much that I knew she wanted to get rid of me as fast as possible. She put me in this freezing-cold room that had no blankets, just a sort of sheet. And I said, `I don't think I'll stay here tonight.' And she said [Coulter puts on a tone of steely civility], `No, it's up to you.'

"Usually, though, there's a kind of glow in the house afterwards: I can stay a couple more days before I think, `What am I doing in this stranger's home?' Like Cinderella, midnight comes and you're a pumpkin again."

If you want some idea of how naturally Coulter embodies the play's tormented protagonist, consider the story of the student who believed that she had improvised the whole thing in response to a conversation they'd had beforehand about economics and politics. Apparently, it's a common mistake. It can't be healthy, I suggest, living with The Fever. The text is like a black hole (in the astronomical sense) of guilt. Doesn't she feel like she's constantly about to implode under the pressure? "I went through a phase where my friends all said, `You've got to stop doing it, it's killing you,'" she admits. And then, for someone who says she'd never really engaged with politics before, it became a liberating experience. "If I do this piece well, I can stop worrying that I may not be very good at tons of other things. It's brought me back to a much more limited view of what my place in society as an actor is.

"What I have always loved is the way that some musicians work. You think of Glenn Gould, and how he allowed himself to play Bach for the rest of his life. I'll play other roles - I do play other roles - but I'll always do The Fever"

`The Fever' opens tonight at the Royal Court at the Ambassadors, London. WC2 (0171-565 5000). To 25 Jan