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Friday 14th November 2008
Theatre Review | STATE OF EMERGENCY | Gate Theatre, Notting Hill

The Gate are always one for big ideas, and yet sometimes ideas are not enough, as this latest offering from German playwright Falk Richter (translated by David Tushingham) demonstrates. In the foyer, an eerie infomercial plays on repeat. Calm, well-spoken voices describe a gated community in which children play without fear and in which there are fantastic shopping facilities. It’s safer, they tell us, and now they’ve moved they’ll never look back.

Of course, the reality is altogether more sinister, as Man (Jonathan Cullen) and Woman (Geraldine Alexander)) have gradually come to discover. The premise brings to mind all manner of connotations, from the classic Orwellian nightmare of a surveillance society, to George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, in which the wealthy dwell in a shopping mall while the proletariat (zombies) are confined to the surrounding slums. It’s the ‘us and them’ mentality, increasingly embraced by prosperous Americans whose high-security homes reflect their deep-seated paranoia.

The Man and the Woman are married, but this is a marriage teetering on the edge. They have sex fortnightly, like clockwork, an act of civic duty rather than one of passion. They talk in tense, broken sentences and rarely discuss anything of meaning. The staccato dialogue is reminiscent of Martin Crimp, although Crimp does it much better. The couple are frightened, of their neighbours, their bosses, their friends and their increasingly introverted son. The Man is no longer able to feign enthusiasm, and the Woman is fearful this will lead to their demise.

Because of this, she berates him, pretty much for the duration of the play, while he puts up little resistance. Jittery Alexander does a fantastic job of the role, but she alone is unable to inject much-needed oomph into this lifeless affair.

The script quickly becomes repetitious, and there is nothing in the way of light relief – which is a shame, because Cullen also gives a strong performance, despite being given little to work with. The couple’s son (played by an impressive James Lamb) makes a brief appearance, providing a short-lived breath of fresh air, but not enough is made of his character. His friends have died trying to escape the compound, and barely have we had a chance to get to know him before he too makes a break for freedom.

Naomi Dawson’s end-on set design works well. The actors are boxed into a stark rectangular room of reflected glass, while the audience look on from the equally confined stalls. It’s a confrontational set-up, and one which reflects on the play’s voyeuristic themes. It almost works too well, because it makes the characters' incessant bickering all the more inescapable.

Perhaps this would have worked better had we had a glimpse of the couple enjoying their surroundings, relishing the blank white houses with their manicured lawns and uptight inhabitants. Then the story could have been one of creeping disillusion, Truman Show-style. Instead, we are subject to an 80-minute hysterical barrage, in which neither character makes any significant psychological progress, and little ground is broken between them.

© Harriet Davis 2008

  • State of Emergency runs at the Gate Theatre until 13 December 2008.

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