|the bluest blue you ever blue (Photograph: Marc Brenner)|
Girls and Boys is a play told in two formal worlds: one is a sort of confessional standup, a story of a woman who has a story to tell about violence and her husband and her family; and one is a mime-world of that very family, absent the other players, played only in the actor and the audience’s imagination. And there’s this moment at the formal intersection of the two worlds of this play that made me go proper WOW.
The set changes from a blank of blue to a model room, all still in the same, childish, anaemic, blue of before, but filled out with desks in blue and taps in blue and books in blue and a stylish uncomfortable-looking sofa in blue. It’s like a room has been spray-painted with the blue from an “It’s a Boy!” card.
But there is a split second during transition into this world where, through some trick of Es Devlin’s extraordinary brain, we see the world fully rendered, for just a second: the books are real and colourful, the oranges in the bowl are as orange as… well.
It’s worth going to the Royal Court just for this trick. Honestly, it knocked my socks off. It’s the smartest bit of projection I’ve ever seen. And I think theoretically fairly bruising as a window into the heart of the play.
Carey Mulligan plays an unnamed woman ("can characters please [not] have monikers?") who takes us through her first meeting with her husband, her falling in love, her professional ambition, his waning success, her coincident rise, and the brutal outcome of his – well, his being the man he is and was.
In this world we see a woman telling a plangent story in the most open, honest, and straightforward way possible. Seeking to really get at the heart of what this story was in her experience without sentimentality. Carey Mulligan is completely extraordinary: there’s this moment where she said “shit” and I believed with all my body that she had forgotten her line: it was an electric moment where I winced, only to remember that it’s an effing play stoopid. I really don’t know how she manages to hold our attention in such an enormous room, with such a blank space, and stay restrained and thoughtful and active. She never offers us a way in: though she is honest, we don’t feel like she’s our friend, she doesn’t feel close. It felt to me exactly the brave playing of this part that the script requires to make it work. And a lesser actor would definitely have made it histrionic and, to be honest, been lauded even more: this performance is not big and therefore not easily talked about. It’s quiet and measured and I fucking loved it. ANYWAY.
The script is good – I’m not sure it’s great. The form plays less effectively than I expected – the revelation is a real rug-pull, which I don’t like a million per cent – but the bluntness of Kelly’s descriptions of violence sort of sing in their docile banality. I think back to Kelly’s work before he became the pre-eminent hawker of merch with outlines of kids on it, and I sort of think this play is not up to Orphans or Osama the Hero, particularly the latter, which has a sort of formal bravery and imagination that generates its own energy rather than here, where I fear the energy is slightly sapped by its insistent and quite predictable flipping between two forms (was I thinking about how much I wanted to see her play with her imaginary kids or was I just looking at the beautiful set and wondering when we’d go back to the other bit?)
Here come some spoilers. I challenged myself not to, but what I really want to talk about is Michael Billington and I don’t think you can talk about Michael Billington’s tone-deaf, offensive, and abhorrent bungle without knowing what happens at the end of this play. So, what happens *SPOILER* is that the husband has killed the children. They get divorced and after the divorce he goes over to their flat when she is out and the babysitter is there and he stabs them both with a hunting-knife. We hear how this is called “family annihilation”, we hear in real detail that this is a common crime, committed 95% of the time by men, and one that often does not have warning-signs. I have zero reason to believe that Dennis Kelly would have lied, or misrepresented the real-world facts about these events.
So, what does Michael think is the issue here – his final line:
"I’d suggest you need to present both sides of the story."
I think it’s so fascinating that this would be his feeling. I read the review beforehand and didn’t really balk, because I thought well, yeah, maybe. But to go to a play right now and have a woman clearly explain to you that she wants to write this sort of man out of her life and out of the world and to go “I think it’s really important that we hear his side, because she’s being a bit partial and it might be more complicated and maybe he’s got some interesting things to say.” What? Maybe he does, but way to review a play you would like to see (and *did* see the day before as you pointed out) and completely betray the fact that toxic masculinity is blind to its own overwhelming over-over-overwhelming presence in our cultural discourse and that its absence is not a vacuum, but a relief. The subversive action is not to mirror culture, surely, but to try to alter it.
And to go back to the design and that flash of the real in the room that is a cartoon blue: I think it’s such a fascinating way to explore memory after trauma. The character says at one point that she wants to cut him out of all her memories with her children, to imaginatively kill him, and that the process is only just begun. But the argument of that momentary flash – a moment of full detail ceding to a haze – would seem to be that there is nowhere, no place, beyond the imagination in which this character can fully realise a happiness lost, so the site becomes a nowhere space, washed out save for tiny details, where the background fades into an eternal absent-minded blue and the lights are less real than the unhappy world this woman is forced to inhabit. At the heart of the play, therefore, is a loving gesture, but one that is deeply pessimistic: a world beyond the violence of men is beyond imagining, the details are necessarily inchoate and it is the details, the details that stick out. It makes me sad to think about that projection.
Anyway, I really liked it: I would urge you to try to get returns. I would urge Michael Billington to think really seriously about that final paragraph and its wording. I want Es Devlin to design my front room.