Home Book Notes DRAMA: Simon Stephens's disturbing play about British Iraq war vet -- 'Motortown'

DRAMA: Simon Stephens's disturbing play about British Iraq war vet -- 'Motortown'

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On Tuesday, the Financial Times (UK) reviewed a weird, disturbing play about a returned British Iraq war vet by an emerging "outstanding young playwright," 35-year-old Simon Stephens.[1]  --  The protagonist, Danny, "has come back from serving with the army in Basra to find that he is no kind of hero, that he served in a war that is an embarrassment, and that friends, acquaintances, strangers don't want to hear what he has to tell. Gradually what emerges is a portrait of a man without the moral or intellectual resources to cope with the terrors of army discipline, never mind the horrors of military action. And what reveals itself is his need to re-enact at home the unprovoked violence that he helped to commit out there."  --  On Wednesday, Caroline Ansdell summarized a number of reviews of the play, which "agreed that the drama has an undeniable impact in terms of shock value, [but] some were less sure of the point Stephens is trying to make."[2]  --  Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph was amused that some had touted the play as a defense of the Iraq war:  "To say that this is a work that defends the war in Iraq is a bit like saying that Macbeth is a play that justifies serial killing."[3]  --  Spencer recounted that "Stephens wrote [Motortown], in something approaching a creative frenzy, in just four days, starting on the day London won the Olympics bid, and continuing through the horrors of the London bombings and their immediate aftermath.  And that sense of wired euphoria swiftly followed by horror, fear and disgust certainly seems to inform the spirit of this wild and harrowing piece." ...

1.

Arts

'THE WAR WAS ALL RIGHT . . . I MISS IT'
By Alistair Macaulay

Financial Times (UK)
April 25, 2006

http://news.ft.com/cms/s/ab732aec-d47d-11da-a357-0000779e2340.html

The story told by Simon Stephens' exceptional, disturbing new play Motortown is very like that of Albert Camus's The Stranger, but it is very now and entirely British.

Danny, the protagonist, feels like nobody's protagonist. He has come back from serving with the army in Basra to find that he is no kind of hero, that he served in a war that is an embarrassment, and that friends, acquaintances, strangers don't want to hear what he has to tell. Gradually what emerges is a portrait of a man without the moral or intellectual resources to cope with the terrors of army discipline, never mind the horrors of military action. And what reveals itself is his need to re-enact at home the unprovoked violence that he helped to commit out there.

Danny -- superbly played by Daniel Mays -- is alienated from everyone except maybe his brother Lee; he is prone to invent swagger stories that make his life back home sound more remarkable than the blank it is. When rejected by one woman, he takes it out on another. While he talks to her, he reveals a mixture of pent-up aggression, inarticulacy, and (of all things) charm -- but he commits on her three sudden acts of minor torture; then, casually, he kills her. The scene is strange, horrifying, and utterly believable. As he zips her body up into a body-bag, he goes on talking to her about the anti-war protesters: "They're French exchange students . . . They're Hasidic Jews in swimming pools. They're lesbian cripples with bus passes. They're niggers . . . I'm not joking. I fought a war for this lot."

What follows, unexpectedly, is the funniest scene in the play. Danny meets a married couple who are interested in having sex with him; he takes a while to realize that, and they take longer to realize what's on his mind. When he asks them if they went on the anti-war march in Hyde Park and they say yes, he cheerfully tells them how he'd like to have been there and gunned them all down. Since they don't know he's got a girl's body in the boot of his car, they don't realize how serious he's being.

It so happens that my eldest nephew went out for his second stint in Basra last Saturday; I watched *Motortown* with his mother -- who remarked afterwards that she would have gone on that anti-war march had her son not been in the army. Although my nephew is unlike Danny in crucial respects, Motortown made me appreciate him and other soldiers serving in Iraq with new compassion. It is coolly, admirably staged -- the director is Ramin Gray -- almost as an anti-play. No scenery; stagehands visible; the actors shift the minimal furniture. Scene follows scene at first without any narrative thread; we're not even sure they're in chronological order -- until we do.

But from the start, the play makes us sense, absolutely, the weird distance between Danny and the rest of life in Essex. And bit by bit it takes us down into his psyche. "I don't blame the war. The war was all right. I miss it. It's just you come back to this."

Simon Stephens has emerged in this millennium as an outstanding young playwright. I've particularly loved his Herons (Royal Court Theatre Upstairs) and On the Shores of the Wide World (National Theatre). With Motortown, he extends himself yet further. It is the toughest play he has given us, and the sign of his skill is how fast it holds us and how real we find it.

Motortown is at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London SW1. Tel 020 7565 5000

2.

Review round-up

MUSINGS ON MAYS AND 'MOTORTOWN'
By Caroline Ansdell

What's On Stage
April 26, 2006

http://www.whatsonstage.com/dl/page.php?page=greenroom&story=E8821145961557

The Royal Court’s year-long 50th anniversary program continues in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs with the world première Motortown, the latest play by Simon Stephens, who won this year’s Best Play Olivier for last year’s On the Shore of the Wide World at the National. While critics agreed that the drama has an undeniable impact in terms of shock value, some were less sure of the point Stephens is trying to make.

Written in the wake of the London bombings in July 2005, the story revolves around Danny, who returns from Basra to a foreign England and a different kind of battle. Ramin Gray directs a cast led by Daniel Mays (pictured) as the former soldier. Motortown opened 24 April 2006 (previews from 21 April) and continues its limited run until 20 May 2006.

Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com -- “The Royal Court has at last come up with a play on its main stage that is worthy of celebrating 50 years of the English Stage Company . . . Ramin Gray’s superb production on a bare stage -- with a bank of visible lights and visible stage management -- has a beautiful choreography of chairs and movement that suggests an army drill routine. . . . As a picture of a personality in freefall, Daniel Mays’ performance is quite extraordinary: supple, aggressive, fearless, disturbing. . . . Stephens has written an instant modern classic, the first major anti-anti-war play of this era.”

Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard -- “Stephens evokes Danny’s disturbed, psychopathic condition with chilling eloquence and conviction. Yet he scarcely suggests what inspires the soldier to torture and kill when back home.” He praised Mays’ “enthralling, enigmatic Danny” but noted that “although the actors performed with confident intensity, every nuance of veiled emotion conveyed, the production seemed like an austere, stylised rehearsed reading.”

Lyn Gardner in the Guardian -- Gardner described Motortown as “like being run over by a ten-ton truck that doesn't bother to stop to check that you are still breathing.” She commented that the violent play “is in no way a pleasant experience, but is, I think, an essential one. And it is not without a desperate, brutal tenderness.” She added: “Although it will probably get up a lot of liberal noses, this is a searingly honest play . . . I could have done without the dancing furniture, but not the astonishing moments when blood is mopped from the stage in a ritual that feels both like absolution and a terrible punishment.”

Benedict Nightingale in the Times -- “For that incongruously named theatre, the Royal Court, it’s a periodic duty to stage a play that sickens us with its violence. . . . As a portrait of modern London, it’s neither very representative nor sufficient to explain the extremes of Danny’s bewilderment and fury. But then it’s the British in Iraq rather than the British in Britain that Stephens is mainly targeting.” Although Nightingale found faults with the text, he acknowledged that “Stephens is a fine young dramatist, justly admired for his quirky observation and sharp dialogue.”

3.

Arts

THE HORROR OF WAR COMES HOME
By Charles Spencer

** Motortown at the Royal Court **

Daily Telegraph< (UK)
April 26, 2006

Original source: Daily Telegraph (UK)

A preview piece on Motortown suggested that Simon Stephens's new drama might turn out to be something rarer than the fabled unicorn -- a genuinely Right-wing play.

It would, we were assured, ridicule the anti-war march and had been written "to destabilize the common instinct to demonize the U.S. and Tony Blair."

Unfortunately, it doesn't turn out to be quite as brave and interesting as that, for the chap defending the war in Iraq and pouring scorn on the anti-war marchers turns out to be a psychopathic squaddie from Dagenham, who has been involved in abusing prisoners in Basra.

To say that this is a work that defends the war in Iraq is a bit like saying that Macbeth is a play that justifies serial killing. In drama, the nature of the character making the case is every bit as important as the words he utters.

Nevertheless, Motortown proves a deeply unsettling piece -- so unsettling that several members of the first-night audience walked out -- and one that taps potently into the troubled spirit of the times in which we live.

Stephens wrote it, in something approaching a creative frenzy, in just four days, starting on the day London won the Olympics bid, and continuing through the horrors of the London bombings and their immediate aftermath. And that sense of wired euphoria swiftly followed by horror, fear and disgust certainly seems to inform the spirit of this wild and harrowing piece.

We follow our anti-hero Danny through a single day shortly after his return from Basra, in a series of short, sharp, and often shocking scenes that are played without décor in Ramin Gray's stark, sharp production., I could happily have dispensed with the warm-up exercises that begin the show, and the silly choreographed routines with chairs between scenes, which tiresomely remind us that we are watching actors and weaken the charged atmosphere. But the acting itself is superb.

In particular, Daniel Mays offers a tour de force as the deeply disconcerting Danny. He can seem charming at times, and funny, and kind. But there is a constant edge of menace about him, too, always simmering and sometimes boiling over into ungovernable rage, and a growing realization that his mind is actually far more screwed up than that of his gentle autistic brother, whom we meet in the first scene.

We watch as Danny gets the brush-off from an old girlfriend, obtains a gun, and then, in the play's most horrible sequence, kidnaps a 14-year-old girl Jade and does terrible things to her.

It is almost unbearable to watch, and in the implicit suggestion that gratuitous cruelty and violence is a perhaps inevitable part of a soldier's make-up, a consequence of the training and culture of the armed services, the play strikes me as glib and wrong-headed.

Yet there is no doubt that Motortown gets under your skin. Stephens turns the mood on a sixpence from gasps of shock to uneasy laughter as our anti-hero encounters a couple of smug, middle-class swingers in Southend, and his echt Essex dialogue packs an undoubted punch. He is even capable of sudden unexpected moments of tenderness amid the fear and loathing.

As well as Mays's weird, wired Danny, there are terrific performances from Tom Fisher as his damaged yet unexpectedly perceptive brother; Daniela Denby-Ashe as the girlfriend, who sensibly decides to have nothing more to do with him; Richard Graham as a deeply sinister and nihilistic gun technician; and Ony Uhiara as the play's most helpless victim.

This is not an evening one is likely to forget in a hurry, though for all Stephens's undoubted talent, I fervently wish I could.

--Tickets: 020 7565 5000


Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 April 2006 23:45