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I’m an observer. Sitting in coffee shops behind a glass window, observing the world around me, imagining a story for each individual that walks past is an afternoon of pure bliss. Perhaps it’s for this reason that I love the theatre; I like the challenge and absorption of a new culture or a new idea. That’s why Evening at the Talk House sounded ideal to me. I was willing it to be good, I really was.
A bunch of old friends, originally brought together by the play Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars ten years before, gather at the renowned but overlooked club, The Talk House. We are introduced to the charming, eloquent playwright, Robert, as he saunters onstage, directly addressing the audience with warmth and grace. There is style and knowledge in this opening monologue; we are seized and not let go by Robert, played by Josh Hamilton, and could easily have seen the whole night from entirely his perspective. He is witty and gives us a sense of belonging at The Talk House, shedding some light on those long evenings spent there many years before.
Slowly we are introduced to the rest of the cast: the composer, the actor, the producer, the wardrobe designer and the two lovely women who run The Talk House. I’m struck the normality of these characters, unassuming and conventional. They meet and greet each other with affection and as we come to meet Dick, played by Wallace Shawn, the dialogue between him and Robert is comedic, hateful but strangely familiar. Ten minutes further in, I start to come to terms with the reality of what the play will really be.
As the tedium sets in, the hard truth becomes inescapable: there is nothing extraordinary about these characters or anything they have to say. Who really cares about what Timothy did ten years ago, especially when we don’t even know who he is? We sit observing these old friends but gain little insight into anything at all, still less any emotional connection. There is nothing about their old stories or all the gossip that you wouldn’t expect and it’s just like being at a dinner party that you don’t really belong at. In so doing, the play becomes lifeless and oddly depressing as each character discusses the downfall of the theatre industry and themselves as individuals.
We all love Wallace Shawn in Toy Story but his plays are on a different plane to these fun-loving, family films. Shawn presents himself as a writer of political importance and satirical work but in doing so has caused uproar in the theatre on numerous occasions, namely with 1977’s sexually explicit A Thought in Three Parts, whose production at the ICA led to a criminal investigation and questions raised in Parliament. As he matured, his work addressed more political, liberal themes – but despite being the recipient of three Obies for playwriting, his work has continued to polarise. Even his monologue, The Fever, staged at the Royal Court in 2009, tore critics in two – either acclaim or indifference. So does where does Evening at the Talk House stand amongst the controversial work of Wallace Shawn?
Indifference is the worst place for theatre to stand, and at least this play didn’t evoke that. But as we stumble through the semi-dystopian world of Evening at the Talk House, it appears that Shawn misses every opportunity to really make his classic cynical statement. The “talk” becomes a circling argument of the new government law that proposes the opportunity to “target” and murder those that pose a threat to our society. Three characters discuss this with no development to the argument even though, amid the uproar of the Paris attacks, the subject has never been more opportune. Perhaps Shawn was trying to cunningly tackle the blasé and careless attitude many people have when discussing these subjects but there were no questions, no answers and a disproportionate amount of time spent on only the possibility of this imperative statement.
At least there were a few saving graces. The cast, at least, were impressive, from the highly-strung Jane to Shawn himself as a mysterious, delusional figure that foreshadows and haunts the old friends, a visual representation of what is to come. The set designers, The Quay Brothers, masterfully created an eerie setting, full of nostalgia and years of decadence. Their years of experience in film and theatre did bear some fruit; the ending specifically gave a light-bulb moment that had greater impact than the rest of the play in its entirety.
The letdown was the play itself – and not just in the lack of excitement. Current industry talks about the importance of diversity and inclusion are dropped instantly. With Rufus Norris being only the second non-Cambridge-educated artistic director of the National Theatre, we expected something extraordinary and distinctive in his reign, not a production that appeals to the general white, middle-class theatre artists. The failure of Evening at the Talk House damages the National Theatre’s reputation of becoming the nation’s theatre again. Norris is backtracking. Nicholas Hytner created thought-provoking, impressive productions; I don’t even remember seeing a single bad one at the National during his time there.
Whether it was Wallace Shawn or Rufus Norris, this production was nowhere near the standard it should have been. There was promise in the opening monologue but the plot dispensed with any trace of this. The moments of wit and comedy were worthless to those who are less involved in the world of theatre and the direction could not save what was already lost. There was no point to any of it. Come on Norris, you have so much potential! You were on the right track with Everyman and you’ve got some of the greatest artists in the world here! Wallace Shawn’s play just doesn’t cut it.
Evening at the Talk House continues at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre until March 30. Tickets are available from £15.