It’s highly appropriate that the 50th anniversary celebration season of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre should feature a new play by Caryl Churchill, one of is finest luminaries who made her name as a radical feminist playwright in the seventies. Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? is Churchill’s 14th work to be staged at the Court, including the premieres of the classic Top Girls and Serious Money, but sadly it proves to be a major disappointment.
Like her previous play produced here in 2002, A Number, which took a penetrating look at the issue of cloning, Churchill’s new play uses an innovative, elliptical format to examine a topical and controversial theme: how the UK has condoned and collaborated in some extremely murky US foreign policy initiatives since the war. However, although the writing ingeniously condenses a big issue into just 50 minutes, it fails to shed any new light on this shadowy subject as it falls into the trap of a knee-jerk anti-Americanism.
The play presents eight short scenes showing the fluctuating relations between two men in love with each other. In the first scene, this seems purely a personal affair, as one man agrees to leave his family and job to go off with the other. But afterwards, as they get involved in political discussion, we quickly realise that, as their names suggest, (Union) Jack and (Uncle) Sam represent the transatlantic alliance: theirs is a special relationship indeed.
In Eugene Lee’s effectively simple and rather surreal design, the couple are suspended on a couch which is raised incrementally higher from the ground as their plans for world dominance reach ever dizzying heights. The surrounding darkness reinforces the impression of rarefied isolation and of a dangerous fantasy which has the potential to become all too real – indeed, Churchill implies it’s already well under way.
Apparently a US government policy adviser, Sam employs a macho Machiavellianism to persuade the more hesitant Jack that all sorts of nefarious activities are necessary to protect and promote the ‘free, democratic’ West, as the ends always justify the means. A whole catalogue of dodgy US interventions both overt and covert – in other nations’ affairs is listed, including Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua and, of course, Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the colonial expansion is not just military but economic and cultural too, while the US’s self-centred damage to the environment is also mentioned.
The problem is that the view depicted is so partial this is very much the case against the US as presented by the prosecuting counsel in which more positive US actions (such as defeating Nazism and stopping ethnic cleansing in Kosovo) are ignored, as are the misdemeanours of other countries. And if the defendant is so obviously guilty from the start, there’s not going to be much drama in the trial.
It’s true that Jack’s doubts and anxieties give the play some dramatic tension, but his complaisance towards the aggressively cocksure Sam means that their sub/dom relationship is a very one-sided affair. Yes, there are lovers’ tiffs, and Jack even leaves at one point, but he soon comes back to his master like a good lapdog or should that be poodle? (Maybe Blair and Bush would know.) The play is more successful in portraying the eroticisation of power, which links the personal with the political dynamic Sam is a guy who gets off on power, and Jack finds this irresistible.
The dialogue is also intriguing, if difficult to follow, because Jack and Sam riff off each other in very short unfinished sentences, which the audience has to complete in their own minds. Because one line of dialogue is loosely linked to the previous line without necessarily complementing it, in an endless stream of consciousness style, sometimes this feels like a rather awkward round from I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue when the idea is to keep a sentence going indefinitely. But it’s certainly an extraordinary technical feat, with meaning sometimes as elusive as truth, and where the audience has to work as hard as the actors.
Under James Macdonald’s astute direction, Stephen Dillane (Jack) and Ty Burrell (Sam) both give excellent performances, suggesting an extraordinary intimacy even though their conversation is almost entirely about public policy. Dillane expresses a subtle blend of diffidence and fascination, while Burrell’s overweening confidence masks a need not just to be kow-towed to but to be loved, as he says, with ‘total commitment’. For him, anything less is a betrayal, as, to coin a phrase, ‘Either you’re with us, or you’re against us’. It is Jack’s refusal or inability to give this unconditional commitment which ultimately gives the play a glimmer of hope.
As a satirical allegory, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? is undeniably clever, and occasionally bitingly funny, but its entirely negative account of US/UK foreign policy is a simplification of complex issues. Churchill has opted for attacking an easy target rather than trying to illuminate the twilight zone of international realpolitik. Although the underlying burning anger is unmistakable, and indeed admirable, there’s a strong sense that this is a play which is preaching a message to the converted of Sloane Square.