Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, run ended
There is a long precedent for plays that parallel the alienated processes of an atomised modern society with sexual dysfunction, with such notables as Trevor Griffiths and Howard Brenton contributing to the conversation since the 70s. Of recent years, though, this Calixto Bieito and Marc Rosich adaptation of Michel Houelebecq’s novel makes the most profound progress on the discourse.
In it, we meet Michel, a totally alienated employee of the French Ministry of Culture, whose initial appearance, pouring one coin after another into a slot machine supplying pornographic films in a porn movie house tells us much about his attenuated state. It’s 2001 and Michel is determined to spend the inheritance of his recently deceased father, who he despised, on the fleshpot entertainments that maintain an isolation from society that he’s learned to enjoy.
Off he goes to the Far East, where he teams up with three equally lonely figures: a desperately misanthropic comedian, a neo fascist Maths Professor and a German gas fitter who’s been disfigured in an industrial accident. They indulge in precisely what you’d expect white middle aged men who’ve overdosed on individualism to, until Michel meets Valerie, an employee of their tour erotic entertainer who’s been the victim of a ghastly assault.
Around Alfons Flores’ splendid revolve set, a tacky bar separated from a grim faceless lounge by the ever- present porn film booths, Bieito forces us to examine the consequences of the mindless individualist ethic created by contemporary neo-liberal economics. The forces of capitalism, the play insistently urges us, have a direct link to the aching loneliness of these men and women, and our constant denial of the very direct links between economic exploitation and the loveless existential void in which the modern West finds itself warrants the punishment we receive. A final act of violence is not an inexplicable and monstrous act, but rather the logical ends of our own actions. Perhaps the opening sequence, intended no doubt to illustrate the arduous repetitiveness of pornography, is still a little too long, and if it seems improbable that love can happen in the atmosphere of isolation created, the production is still terrific art.
This is a genuinely radical piece, which, for all the complaints about the explicit sexual content it might provoke, has a deeply moral message at its core. There are also fine performances from the cast all round, with Juan Echanove and Marta Domingo outstanding in the leads. A compelling and important piece of theatre, one hopes for an opportunity to see it again.