For her first full scale production as artistic director of the Royal Court, Vicky Featherstone has chosen to direct The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas – a twisted, darkly witty morality fable about the evils of rampant, greed-is-good capitalism.
Already seen in Germany where it was originally commissioned, it's the latest stage work by the strikingly versatile (and uneven) Dennis Kelly, whose oeuvre ranges from the mischievously sharp and delightful book for Matilda, the Musical to the studiously sicko humour of Utopia, the violent, ingeniously paranoid TV conspiracy thriller.
In an introductory scene that takes up some thirty minutes of the three-hour running time, a seated chorus, in chatty, semi-bantering fashion, brief us (if that's the verb) on Gorge's early life – from the moment of conception in 1972 to his early 30s. They repeatedly ask whether his apparently virtuous decisions – siding with a loser friend at school, not pressurising a pregnant lover into an abortion etc – were the result of “goodness or cowardice”. Is behaving well just the playing-safe of weaklings?
That's the doctrine espoused by the sleekly ruthless Mephistophelean entrepreneur (Pippa Haywood) who claims to be able to stop time and see into the future. In a scene of devious boardroom temptation, she offers Gorge entry into an elite of the mega-rich and powerful “who have everything because they will do anything”, if he betrays his boss and abides by the golden rules of success which involve systematic, compulsive lying and a coldly cavalier attitude to the consequences.
Lantern-jawed and luminously gaunt like an escapee from a Bruegel painting, Tom Brooke is wonderfully compelling as the title's hero and Featherstone's skilful direction brings out all the creepy, slow-paced horror and queasy comedy in the encounters (mostly duologues) that demonstrate the diabolically deceitful lengths to which Gorge will go on his way up - and his trapped, tragic discovery that not everyone can be bought on the downward path into a hollow old age of loneliness and denial.
The fine cast double as characters and as the chorus on whose teasing commentary Kelly relies too heavily. It's true that the play is long-winded and over-explicit and that, even by the standards of fable, it feels deficient in specific political context. But there are sequences of shudder-inducing power – the heartless seduction of an abuse victim (excellent Kate O'Flynn) through chequebook research into her particular vulnerabilities; the resistance to bribery of the long-lost brother (Jonathan McGuinness) whose childhood Gorge retroactively destroyed by his flagrantly mendacious misery memoir. Featherstone directs these with a stealth and insight that bodes well for the future of her regime.
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