THEATRE / Out of step with PC plod: Paul Taylor on Martin Crimp's The Treatment and Judith Thompson's Lion in the Streets

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The Independent Culture
THE BATONS of the PC police will almost certainly be set twitching by these two bleakly brilliant comedies. In Martin Crimp's The Treatment at the Royal Court, for example, a young woman decides that returning to an abusive marriage is, on the whole, preferable to having her story bought and distorted by the team of 'facilitators' who want to dramatise it. Over at the Hampstead Theatre, meanwhile, one of the episodes in Judith Thompson's Lion in the Streets shows us a woman who is brow-beaten by her fiance into agreeing that she provoked - and enjoyed the best sex she'd ever had - the rape she suffered some years back.

Having made this distraught, tearful 'confession', the woman then promptly snaps out of her grief and, with a breathtaking tonal shift, extracts from him in return a promise that he'll accompany her to a swank store to look over sets of plates. Colliding with our pity for her is the barmy sense that there's nothing this bride-to-be won't do to keep up marital appearances.

PC RIP - but does this then mean that we should draw in our skirts and stalk righteously to the exits? Far from it: indeed, one of the virtues of both pieces is the way they show that human beings can't be tidied up to fit piously positive images. In The Treatment, Nicky, a young woman in a New York-based film company, actually voices the feminist position. When Ann, the abused wife, passionately objects that though she didn't struggle in the bondage game, she was not a passive victim, Nicky blithely denies that living through an experience gives you privileged knowledge about it. Dismissively pointing at the girl, she says: 'This is not my idea of Ann: passive? Humiliated? Victim? - She's 'lived' it. Haven't we also lived?'

Crimp's shrewd point is that the feminist's PC line has as much as a vested interest in tampering with the truth as the two main facilitators (a chicly heartless Sheila Gish and Larry Pine) who aren't happy with the lack of violence in the relationship and bring in an elderly writer with a voyeurism kink to add a bit of spice. So, when a disillusioned Ann goes back to her husband, you find that you neither approve of the move nor yet feel confident about proclaiming that only a woman in the grip of false consciousness could act like this. In the New York of the play, she doesn't have a palatable alternative.

Shuttling between a sleek, neon-lit sushi bar and the violent, siren-filled streets, Lindsay Posner's stylishly acted production imparts a vivid sense of the comic comfortlessness of the world Crimp has created. It's no accident that the play ends with a sublime sick joke when the retributively blinded writer picks up a cab with a blind black driver at the wheel, clicking his fingers to boogie woogie.

It's a situation that would raise few eyebrows, you'd have thought, in Seaton Village, Toronto, as depicted in Judith Thompson's Lion in the Streets. Here the grimy, feral ghost of a murdered immigrant girl comes back to haunt the place, a device that lets Thompson rattle through obliquely linked episodes that show her capacity for tracing the comic pattern on the crazed edge of things.

For example, a cerebral palsy sufferer's sexual fantasies make a prim 'caring' journalist so jealous of not having a like sense of 'belonging' herself, that she batters the woman almost to death. In a cocktail bar, a woman dying of bone cancer asks a friend to help her stage an Ophelia-like suicide. Her interlocutor is far from encouraging - 'You're talking rocks gashing your head'. About to give her a matey come-off-it cuff, the friend nearly dies of embarrassment when she remembers the other woman's condition. Matthew Lloyd's talented cast at Hampstead expertly capture in these and many other vignettes the arrestingly dark screwiness of Thompson's tragi-comic vision. Fans (as I was) of The Crackwalker, this Canadian dramatist's first play to be produced here (last year at The Gate) won't be disappointed.

'Listen, if I've offended anyone . . .' the writer in The Treatment apologises at one point. 'You're an artist, Clifford,' responds a female facilitator, 'it's your job to give offence.' From her lips, this is just a soothing noise: she is too corrupt and box-office-orientated to mean it. At a time when there's such public pressure to adopt the opposite view - that artists are put on earth for the prime purpose of not giving offence (witness the backlash against Philip Larkin) - it's salutary to have plays like this where the outrage is ungratuitous, illuminating, and very funny.

'Treatment' is at the Royal Court, London SW1 (071-730 1745); 'Lion in the Streets' is at Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (071-722 9301).

(Photograph omitted)