Photo: Simon Kane
Hywel Simons, Tervor White, Roger Evans, Peter McDonald, Lisa Palfrey, Isabel Ellison
To take a dim anthropological longview, sometime it’s fun to think of theatre as a cave-dwelling for the middle classes.|
Places in which homo bourgeoisitus collect, sheltered from the elements, to huddle round and mutter. Caves have long been suitable for generating mystery, symbolic spaces for the residing of monsters and angels, and from the mysteric cults of antiquity to Catholic church to the Freemasons, their darkness a home of ritual activity. Here homo bourgeoisitus marks memories, negotiates with the geology of the space to animate their petroglyphs in the caverne partipante as one anthropologist called the theatrical symbolic unity of the cave.
A place where puppet shadows on the wall are broken by the occasional rays of sunlight, the odd sacred cow is slaughtered, the odd genital is loosened from its fur. One thing about cave cultures is that they are typically not diverse. Indeed sometimes a foreign body wanders in that poses an immediate threat to the settled habitats and mores of the dwellers.
The Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs is certainly reminiscent of a cave tonight, a fire burns in the middle of the room, rudimentary camp sites are dotted around. The only giveaway perhaps is the gleaming pickup truck parked at a reckless angle. A group of party animals have rolled up at Red Bud, a race event in the dusty American plains, as they have for 21 years previous, looking to continue the party long into their thirties. Except life is catching up with them, and the exuberant fire of youth that made the party so central to their lives has mutated, into something darker and more violent.
Some notes on homo bourgeoisitus: Of regulated and regular habit, excess is surplus and does not fit with recycling of plastic bottles, abandonment is loss of control, civility and thinking responsibility are cultural keystones, treading drunkenly on camping equipment is not to be tolerated. Red Bud steps into the cave, and seriously upsets the locals. As these bluecollar characters of North American drinking culture are not just any innocuous wino to be hurried past in the street, but the keg-guzzling, pipe-hogging, pregaming, beer pong playing, circle-jerking, poly-drug-abusing, nacho-shattering, civility-battering, rutting and howling - in short, dudus partayicus.
For much of the play these glorious neanderthals party like its 1999 BC, causing such marked affront to the audience you would have thought someone had threatened their evolutionary status with a stick. In some ways they had: a stick is indeed wielded, a campsite is trashed, a leg catches fire, beer is shotgunned, a man is urinated on. Everything that youth and working class culture would do to nice domesticity if they leaked out of the news footage of towncentres and into the suburbs on a Friday night. But most threateningly of all is surely the dull monotonous calls of “REEDBUUUUD” answered by disembodied voices offstage, a restricted roar, a terrifying affirmation of mindlessness, a monosyllabic community of joyful numbskullery. When concordant arcs of golden spray from one of the many shaken and chugged beer cans landed in the laps of a particularly sour-faced couple in the front row, their look of vitriolic distaste was worth the ticket price alone. If the actors can do that every night they will have turned in a string of bravura performances, it was as if you can hear the tutting all the way from the tidy barbecues of Budleigh Salterton.
Brett Neveu’s script successfully nuances the drinking ritual, its grunting macho pop-eyed challenges and formal rules, while retaining a firm handle on the character’s growing distance from the Dionysiac fray. The pathos that age and resentment brings to the party is thoroughly delivered by the winsome eager Hywel Simons as Jason, a particularly troubled manchild, and the simmering square-jawed rage of Peter McDonald as Greg, whose culminating monologue is a note perfect exercise in self-savagery. The script might not quite get to the nub of the class destiny it sketches, doesn’t quite tell the whole story of how the party cannot withstand everything that is placed upon it, but as a snapshot of joyful pathology it is terrifically observed. As Rabbie Burns once noted, “partying is such sweet sorrow”, and he didn’t even have a beer-bong, an easy 19 year old and a lifetime of failure in the mix.
Tonight the cavate theatre allowed in the primitives, and they exploded in a primordial swamp of booze. Ritual began in caves, indeed it’s impossible to think of higher culture without permanent settlement. The forgotten ethnologist Ratsel once contended, not unreasonably, that caves were the “germs of stone architecture”, those civil upright spaces so absent tonight. Red Bud is tremendous fun, a miniature tour-de-force of bluecollar Dionysiac energy and ragged bleakness. And while it might not be the mark of civilisation, neither is it, as the squeamish reaction tonight implied, the end of it.