Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Ugly Caper

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Ugly Caper

Article excerpt

The Conquest of the South Pole Arcola, until 26 May Belong Royal Court Upstairs, until 26 May We all know the 'excellence theory' of migration. Barriers to entry guarantee that imported cargoes have outstanding qualities.

Manfred Karge's parable of urban despair in the Ruhr comes to the UK with high expectations. It's been here before. Director Stephen Unwin premiered the play at Edinburgh, 1987. His new revival at the Arcola demonstrates that the 'false charm theory' of migration also applies. The foreign and the exotic can mesmerise us more easily than the homegrown. Unwin sets the play in some vague tower-block ghetto. We meet a quartet of jobless alcoholics who become fascinated by Amundsen's trip to the South Pole. By impersonating Norwegian explorers, the drunken lunks briefly discover some purpose in their sozzled lives.

Clearly, the lunks' worship of Amundsen is meant as an emblem of their 'alienation'.

What mundanities march under that hallowed banner. Alienation is a cover story for welfare cast-offs born without curiosity, guts or initiative in a society prosperous enough to raise them in complete security. The script is designed with displeasure in mind. The virtues of good plays - compelling characters, a fascinating mission and an uncertain outcome - have been turned upside-down. We have nasty characters, a daft mission and an outcome no one cares about.

Karge's harsh, overcrowded dialogue is full of fidgety repetitions and pretentious soliloquys. There's casual bigotry everywhere. Non-whites are ridiculed. Women exist to get humped, thumped or dumped. If the producers' hope was to stage the worst play in Europe and to boost our appreciation of native writing they've scored a triumph. And Unwin has laid on a masterclass in misdirection. He gives no depth or variety to this laborious, glib, confused, pointless, demeaning and relentlessly ugly caper. Each of the lunks yells every single line. A fifth character, playing an excitable dog, doesn't yell. He yaps instead. Please, I found myself praying, stop yapping and start yelling like the rest.

As it happens, I've been deaf in one ear for a fortnight so by discreetly turning my head I was able to halve my evening's agonies. Soon the show moves to Unwin's home theatre, the Rose, in Kingston-upon-Thames.

Form up neatly on the bridge, chaps, and start throwing yourselves off.

Bola Agbaje cracks out new scripts in no time. Her latest play deals with politics and racial identity. We meet Kayode (Lucian Msamati), a black British MP, who lost his seat after accusing an opponent of anti-African bias. …

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