Martin Crimp is a master at creating cryptic unease. Eight years ago he paid homage to the doyen of disquiet in his deeply Pinteresque play The Country. His new work, The City, sounds as if it's intended as a companion piece. But, in its unsettling self-reflexive tricksiness, it feels more like Attempts on Her Life, Crimp's earlier, ultra-postmodern dismantling of all the components we normally associate with drama.
Here, what's subjected to a darkly surreal brand of scepticism is the whole idea of authorial control. A sense of the urban anxieties over which we fail to get a grip is heightened in a play where stories fall apart and where the characters are gradually revealed to be, at least partly, the deformed figments of an imagination that's resentful at its lack of true creativity.
The play begins with a tense encounter in which a husband and wife treat each to other accounts of their day. Christopher (Benedict Cumberbatch) is preoccupied with the company restructuring and the sexual alliances in the office that may cost him his job.
Clair (Hattie Morahan) describes what had initially looked to her like a scene of abduction at Waterloo station – a woman dressed as a nurse dragging a little girl in pink jeans into a taxi. But there's a provisionally reassuring explanation. The child's father, Mohamed, an author known for his autobiographical writings on prison and torture, had, he claims, just missed saying a paternal goodbye because he had been purchasing a diary for her which instead he gives to Clair.
This worrying vignette establishes several of the motifs that recur in warped shapes and different sizes during a play that self-deconstructs with a stealthily mounting surrealism in Katie Mitchell's immaculate, abstractly monochrome and expertly paced production. There's the notion of someone whose malevolent intent is masked by the disguise of a professionally protective figure. There's the suggestion that authorship is a selfishly distracting business that puts a writer's vulnerable dependents at risk.
Claiming to be the wife of a doctor who has been sent to kill the enemy in a foreign war zone, a weirdo nurse (a comically barking Amanda Hale) comes to complain about the disturbance to her sleep caused by the couple's screaming children. Why are they "screaming" and why, in a bizarre twist, do they appear to have just locked themselves into their playroom? A situation that could have an ordinary, everyday justification begins, characteristically, to look suspicious.
In a outfit that is an exact facsimile of the nurse's uniform, the couple's own eerily calm and watchful little girl (Matilda Castrey) informs her father that Clair has been writing in a secret diary hidden under her shoes in the wardrobe.
An image of people huddled down drains desperately clinging to life – which features in the lurid picture of war painted by the nurse – resurfaces in one of the deeply inappropriate limericks that his child recites to Chris. Why does he urge her to go on? And why, when he discovers blood in her coat pocket, does he let the matter drop?
Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as the husband. He passes from hurt angry bafflement at his wife's contradictory demands ("Impose your will", she snarls, while recoiling from any assertive attempt to kiss to her) to a wounded sorrow when he begins to twig that her hold over his continued being may be far more than a merely monitoring one.
Hattie Morahan makes an indelibly disturbing impression – driven and petulantly capricious until she becomes a crestfallen, confessional presence, lost and disappointed in a world populated by dramatis personae who are alive only "in the way a sick bird tortured by a cat lives in a shoebox".
As it progresses by deftly planted hints and conversations that are like tiptoeing on eggshells, the play gives this vision of angst-ridden sterility a paradoxically vigorous and diabolical imaginative existence.
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