The City @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Benedict Cumberbatch
Hattie Morahan
Amanda Hale
Matilda Castrey
Ruby Douglas

directed by
Katie Mitchell
Martin Crimp’s latest play, a precise yet gleefully knotty thing, begins with a scene in which a married couple discuss their respective days.

The husband, Christopher, is anxious about the impending restructuring of the company for which he works he worries that his job may be in jeopardy. The wife, Clair, describes an unusual encounter with a man at Waterloo Station, a writer with a young daughter, which resulted in her being given a diary as a present. A strong sense of tension underlines this entire exchange, and this tension only increases as the play progresses.

In the following scene a nurse arrives at the couple’s house to complain about the noise their children make when she is trying to sleep following her night shift. She tells them a lengthy and rather bizarre story about her husband who is overseas, working as a doctor in a war in an unnamed country. Later a young girl appears the couple’s daughter, you presume and the feeling of discomfort grows as you think of the small, vulnerable person surrounded by all this unspoken aggression and anxiety.

This ninety minute play is a taut and finely crafted piece of writing where every detail, no matter how inconsequential it initially appears, carries weight. Katie Mitchell’s direction accentuates these qualities. Every nuance of speech and movement feels as if it has been carefully thought about, the spaces between words and the spaces between people all feel as if they have been carefully measured.

Disconnection is the dominant theme. Crimp’s characters seem to be permanently on the cusp of a volatile outburst and each carefully constructed scene is an exercise in tension.

An air of unreality is also apparent. The stories that the characters tell frequently fail to ring true: everything feels slightly askew, off centre. The reasons for this only become apparent at the end, when Crimp overturns what has gone before with what feels less like a revelation than a new, necessary layer of meaning. The city of the title refers not only to a physical place but a place of the imagination. Clair works as a translator, dealing only with the words of others, her own attempts at creativity are lifeless, fractured disconnected, her internal world barren

As Christopher and Clair, Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan give excellent performances, ditto Amanda Hale as their timid, quivering neighbour. Cumberbatch in particular is proficient at giving an edge of menace to even seemingly mundane statements and all three of them speak with an intensity, a clarity that is oddly unnerving. This, as with everything else we are given, seems designed to unsettle, an effect enhanced by Vicki Mortimer’s stark, very white set and the babble of white noise that accompanies the scene changes.

The world Crimp presents us with, a world that is anonymous yet familiar, is a sinister, ominous place. Not a place to linger long – unspecified unpleasantness lurks beneath the surface, constantly threatening to bubble up.

The City is as much a puzzle as a play and will remain in the memory longer than most for precisely that reason.

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