One of the hazards the script reader or assessor is bound to come up against from time to time when confronted by a script that is, shall we say, ‘off the wall’, is: is this balderdash, or could this writer be the new Beckett?
It’s not just playwrights. All creators – writers, painters, composers and others – who genuinely break new ground are likely to find it an uphill battle winning over the general public. Beckett himself – whose Waiting for Godot was received enthusiasically at its premier in France but got a definite thumbs-down in London – might not have become the icon he was had it not been for the critics Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan. The same applies to Harold Pinter’s Birthday Party and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. It takes a far-sighted person to recognise genius, and the rest of us have to run to catch up.
These thoughts were going through my mind while I was watching the latest play by the young playwright Alistair McDowall, called ‘X’, at the Royal Court. Not I hasten to add that I thought it either balderdash or Beckett, but whenever I find myself baffled by something it’s hard not to think: is it me being stupid, or does this piece make no sense at all?
McDowall, like many writers, does not write simple, chronological, easy-to-grasp stuff. His plays – or should I say this play – is not intended to make obvious sense. It plays with time, and reality and nightmare, featuring as it does a group of people stuck in a spaceship on Pluto waiting to be rescued by an Earth with whom they’ve lost all contact. Baffled as I was when I was watching it I read the script afterwards, which helped a bit, but there was still something in me that wondered whether there might not be an element of the Emperor’s New Clothes: if you didn’t get it or you didn’t like it, you’re stupid.
I don’t mind admitting to being stupid. I do mind missing out on something that I am too dense to appreciate, or see the point of. I read the reviews, which were mixed, to see if they could throw light on it. One said all was revealed in the final scene, but I didn’t understand the final scene. A friend said he found it moving. I said I didn’t, not really, because I didn’t feel particularly engaged with any of the characters.
And that, I think after all, is the crux of the matter. As I tell my students, there’s only one thing you need to know when you’re watching a play, and that’s your own mind. It’s not always easy, but it is important. You like a play not because you feel you should, or because the critics liked it, or your friends liked it, or because it stars a clever actor, but because you found it engaging.
For the full review I wrote of the play on londontheatre1.com please click here.