Aunt Dan and Lemon @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Jane Horrocks, Lorraine Ashbourne, Paul Chahidi, Rebecca Faulkenberry, Holly Goss, Scarlett Johnson, Ryan McCluskey, Martin McDougall, Nathan Osgood, Mary Roscoe, Trevor White, Rene Zagger

directed by
Dominc Cooke

“There is something I find refreshing about the Nazis they had the nerve to say: ‘Well, what is this compassion?’ Because I really don’t know what it is.”

This brutal admission comes not from some psychopath bent on world domination, but a frail young woman called Lemon (Jane Horrocks) who is condemned by her illness to spend her days immobile in her flat, ruminating on her childhood memories and her hazy political ideas.

Wallace Shawn’s work is strange yet compelling piece whose moral message leaves the viewer with more questions than answers.

Lemon’s narration takes us to her failed upbringing by a disillusioned businessman father and a neurotic mother, in which her only role model and inspiration is ‘Aunt Dan’ (Lorraine Ashbourne), a glamorous, intellectual and rather blunt friend of her parents.
Dan is a passionate supporter of Henry Kissinger and the Vietnam War and her political views as well as her libertine love life leave a strong impression on the young girl.

In one sense, the play is purely political; Shawn’s treatment of it, however, is rather ambiguous.

On one hand, Dan is an eloquent defender of the war, and while we may not sympathise with her politics, one cannot help feeling that she’s got a point when, in Ashbourne’s dazzlingly violent delivery, she tears asunder the complacency of the liberals who fail to see how much their own comfortable way of life depends on the very world order that they nominally oppose.

On the other hand, as Lemon recycles Dan’s views, which she imbibed like a sponge as a child, they come out as a pathological exculpation of the Holocaust on the very same grounds one society’s defence of its way of life that Aunt Dan supplied in favour of Kissinger. The effect is uncanny, helped along with Horrocks’ intense, fey act.

Shawn then doesn’t let us pass an easy judgement on a black-and-white situation. As the play switches between likable Dan’s quite amusing infatuation with Kissinger and Lemon’s callous, compassionless worldview, we are left feeling rather disoriented. And whatever you may think of Shawn’s message that the Free World is in the last instance not much better than the most reviled regime in history, it cannot be said that he doesn’t make us consider it in a subtle and skilful way.

Dominic Cooke’s production makes Lemon’s memory world a mesmerising place, built around Lizzie Clachan’s beautiful home interior set. The scenes do not change but flow into one another, with shadowy lights and atmospheric music adding to the childlike fascination Lemon has with her mentor. One moment we’re in Lemon’s childhood bedroom, where Aunt Dan snuggles up with her 11-year-old confidante, the next we are in one of her stories, in the dissipate London underworld where Dan makes friends with a group of gangsters.

Apart from the strong leads, the rest of the cast are all a pleasure to watch as well, especially Mary Roscoe and Paul Chahidi as the parents and Scarlett Johnson as a vamp high-class prostitute turned assassin that Dan has an affair with.

The only thing that detracts from the play’s success is Shawn’s rather careless structuring of it, with certain parts of it such as the father’s monologue about his job or the whole long plot about Dan’s friends’ conspiracy to kill an undercover cop not really integrated with the rest of the play, and leaving you rather puzzled as to what the point of them was. Still, though, like with the rest of the production, even these parts are conveyed with such allure that it is hard not to enjoy them.

Shawn’s play is deliberately difficult on its audience, wrestling it into a rather uncomfortable moral position that is quite hard to disentangle oneself from. You leave feeling quite perturbed; even slightly annoyed perhaps. And yet, or perhaps because of this, it’s very good theatre.

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