Waiting for Anne

REVIEW : Attempts on Her Life Royal Court, London
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The Independent Culture
About halfway through Attempts on Her Life, the new Martin Crimp play at the Royal Court, there's a satirical scene focusing on a group of affected art critics. They are debating the value of an exhibition of objects associated with a female artist's attempts to kill herself over the past few months (Polaroids of the various HIV positive men she has had unsafe sex with; medicine bottles etc). They take up predictable positions pro and con, including that of the critic who declares that, if this work has a point, it's surely that the search for a point is pointless: "The whole point of the exercise - ie these attempts on her own life - points to that."

As you'll have gathered, this is a relentlessly self-reflexive piece. Suggestive of murder or suicide, its title refers to, and by implication puts a malign slant on the play's own efforts to capture and define the referred-to female, and it could also be the name of the grisly exhibition that is reviewed within it. But, to defend Crimp's drama as art, would one have to resort to the sort of strained arguments used by the critic above? Is it, for all its extraordinary flights of eloquent writing, a play that is just cleverly knowing and darkly comic about its own ingenious futility?

What needs saying, first, is that the script, which contains barely any stage directions and which leaves all the image-making up to the director, has been turned into a theatrical experience of disorienting power by Tim Albery and a fine cast.

The stage of The Theatre Upstairs has been extended back to the adjoining theatre, giving it, when needed, an eerie, dark, polythene-curtain fringed depth. Proceeding in short elliptical scenes, the play assembles people's diverse, contradictory views of an unseen character called Anne.

We never get to the bottom of who - or what - Anne is. Is she an international terrorist (while her mother and father talk of this childhood ambition, we see passing images of security X-rayed luggage) or is she herself the object of violence? At times, she is discussed as though she were hypothetical, a character being invented for some movie scenario and, in one episode, a caustically cod bilingual advertisement, she even becomes a car that is guaranteed to take its driver only through sun-filled, ethnically cleansed landscapes.

Horrors of this kind are repeatedly drawn to our attention in the piece. Behind a rap singer who is urging us to sympathise, empathise, advertise, realise, there's film of a little girl's legs dangling on a chair. Suddenly blood starts to spill down on to her white socks and her legs twitch in agony. I felt at such moments that my emotions were being over-manipulated. It's significant that the rap song also contains Hamlet's great line about the dangers of factitious empathy: "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba (That he should weep for her?)" So, at the same time as playing on one's sensitivities, the scene makes you queasy about indulging them. One does end up congratulating the play for the wit and agility with which it disappears up its own self-reflexive futility. What is Anne to us or we to Anne that we should care for her? Her identity is so indeterminate and unstable that a play about the difficulty or impossibility of defining her is rather like, say, a film about the difficulty of scoring goals when the goalposts are constantly on the move and regular doubt is cast on the existence of the ball.

Upstairs at the Ambassadors, to 5 April (0171-565 5000)