Cruel and Tender, Martin Crimp's updating of Sophocles' Women of Trachis to reflect the "war on terror", stood out in last year's deluge of political dramas. In his latest work, Fewer Emergencies, contemporary politics are concealed but still bubble under the surface.
In three episodes, three or four nameless characters, placed in a timeless, placeless white box of a set, talk through narratives. It is unclear whether these scenarios are real or imagined, or possible story-lines for a book, or even acting workshops. They are loosely held together by the theme of middle-class contentment threatened by the violence and unspecified "emergencies" latent in 21st-century life.
"Whole Blue Sky" is the most touching episode in which a "picture of happiness" of family life is undermined by the unhappiness of the wife and mother, whose convivial dinner parties conceal the fact that the guests have "screamed at each other in private, punched each other". The final episode, "Fewer Emergencies", gives a contemporary resonance to this angst as we are warned that "there is an emergency on right now". We see a family desperately trying to preserve their cosy life by means of comforting platitudes ("things are definitely looking up") and familiar possessions in the face of unstoppable disaster.
The pristine white box in which the anonymous characters sit becomes a screen for the projection of their fantasies and anxieties. In "Whole Blue Sky", this projection is realised literally as the silhouettes of the actors vacillate on the white screen behind them; in "Face to the Wall", on the theme of a school massacre, the walls are drenched in red light; and in "Fewer Emergencies" the dappled green background represents the sun of optimism that descends into darkness.
For a conceptual piece, three episodes feels a little too long. Nevertheless, Rachael Blake, Tanya Moodie, Paul Hickey and Neil Dudgeon give expression and humour to Crimp's crisp writing. There are some killer musings on the class system, from the suburban mother who knows the "good schools" and the "importance of fruit" and whose dining table "extends and extends", to the differences between "nice families who hoover the insides of their cars" and "those who leave burnt mattresses outside their homes". For many in the audience, these observations and the vague menace of violence will seem all too familiar.
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