He gives up everything for the square-jawed, younger hunk at the other end of the sofa. Jack (as in Union Jack) falls head-over-heels for Sam (as in Uncle Sam) in Caryl Churchill's fascinating and maddeningly elliptical new play Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, a two-hander now unveiled on the main stage of the Royal Court in James Macdonald's beautifully calibrated and imaginative production.
The relationship is special. Indeed, it's the Special Relationship (between Britain and America), presented, with quiet outrageousness, as a passionate same-sex affair. Occasionally, I was reminded less of Churchill and her distinguished oeuvre than of Spitting Image and the symbiotic pairing of the puppets representing big butch David Owen and little lickspittle David Steel on his shoulder. That device was both very funny and a gross distortion of the truth. So - in its more elating, highbrow fashion - is this play.
Churchill, now 68, has written two of the greatest dramas of the new millennium. There's A Number, which is a superbly compressed and economic meditation on the existential and ethical implications of cloning human beings. (It was recently revived in triumph by the father-and-son team of Timothy and Sam West at the Sheffield Crucible.) And, more germane to Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, there is Far Away, which comprises three linked profound ponderings upon politics and the relationship between the private life of the individual and harrowing universal chaos.
This last piece begins with a child discovering bloody ethnic cleansing on her doorstep (her persistence in wanting to know the truth deflected by the self-serving adult world) and ends with a Swiftian vision of a world where the impulse to go to war on the grounds of group-division has gone barking mad: animals ("the cats have come in on the side of the French") throw into wild relief the idiocy of such behaviour by the reaction of human beings to their fickle partisanship. Deer are considered, well, animals, until they join "our" side, whereupon they become a more sensitive species.
One of the remarkable features of Far Away is that it captures so much of what is mad and rigorously regrettable in our insane global polity while steadfastly refusing to refer to topical issues. And, as often happens in Churchill, the most profound moment occurs when the plays slips the surly bonds of earth and looks at humankind from an otherworldly, almost cross-species perspective: "But who will mobilise the darkness?" asks one of the characters - reminding you both that there are more forces at work in the universe than can be comprehended by political divisions and that a venal party can always try to co-opt such things.
By comparison with this great work, I fear that Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? is a shallow piece of shrill US-baiting, brilliantly directed by Macdonald as a smouldering droll and deadly allegorical conceit whereby Britain's dependence upon America is presented as a same-sex infatuation.
Ty Burrell, as chiselled, butch-but-needy Sam, and Stephen Dillane, as the older, anxious-to-please and guilty but hooked Jack, are an exquisitely funny perverse pairing and Macdonald's direction - which has the sofa on which they are draped suspended higher and higher in vacuous darkness - serves the material splendidly.
The trouble is the material itself. It may be wickedly witty in the elliptical fragmentation of the dialogue and the canniness with which it understands the black comedy of mutual dependence. But in pretending that it has found the essential in Britain's relationship with America and in allowing Blair's relationship with Bush to colour the entire proceedings, it is in fact a travesty version of the Special Relationship, which is historically far more nuanced than you would ever deduce from this.
It's the Royal Court's 50th anniversary and it is also the 50th anniversary of the Suez crisis. The diabolically clever but one-sided Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? does not do justice to the richness of that piquant synchronicity.
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