Observer article discusses The Pain and the Itch

From the Observer: (Please visit the link to read the full article)

'Theatre is a precious, pretentious thing for precious, pretentious people'

A new play by US writer Bruce Norris is set to turn the Royal Court's gritty tradition of working-class protest on its head

Jay Rayner
Sunday June 3, 2007
The Observer

Some way into Bruce Norris's new play, The Pain and the Itch, which opens at the Royal Court later this month, Carol, the mother of two argumentative adult sons, tries to break the tension by confessing a taste for the sort of gloomy Holocaust movie which makes her feel a 'better person' for having watched it. When I ask Norris if he wants the audience to emerge from his scabrous, painful and, yes, itchy drama feeling better about themselves, he howls with laughter. 'No! I want them to feel a worse person for having watched it.'

This may come as a surprise to those who thought the Royal Court had decided to offer its patrons an easier night in the theatre from now on. In February, when new artistic director Dominic Cooke announced his first season, he declared that the Court's obsession with the drama of the dispossessed - plays full of drug addiction, visceral violence and the general woes of life on society's margins - was at an end. 'I want to look at what it means to be middle class,' he said, 'what it means to have power, what it means to have wealth.' Many of Britain's theatre critics, worn out by endless nights watching people pretend to shoot up, with the occasional simulated homosexual rape thrown in for variety, were delighted. In the Telegraph, Charles Spencer called it a 'blessed relief'. In the Guardian, Michael Billington praised Cooke for recognising that there was 'a world elsewhere'.

True, Cooke did mention The Pain and the Itch as an example of what he was after as his first production as director, but only in passing. It takes a full reading of the script to realise that this was exactly what he was talking about, as Cooke admits. 'I've only read the script rather than seen it produced but I thought it was an original, caustic, self-critical voice,' Cooke says. He insists he will continue the Court's tradition of putting the voices of the dispossessed on stage, but he also wants to be more realistic about who comes to this theatre. 'There has been an element of our work which has turned the audience into cultural tourists. We are in one of the richest boroughs in the country. I think the play reflects back to the liberal middle classes the double standards of their lives. And I include myself in that group.'

Clearly, while the Court's targets may have changed, the intent has not. They still want to challenge their audience. Originally produced by the highly regarded Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in June 2005, The Pain and the Itch follows an upper-middle-class family, lousy with aspiration, as they gather for a Thanksgiving dinner. These are desperately status-conscious, pathologically insecure people who are too obsessed with the dangers that might lurk outside - what foul vermin is it that keeps leaving teeth marks in the avocados? What diseases might the family pet have passed on? - to pay attention to the real issue of their pre-school age daughter's uncomfortable genital rash.

The setting may be foreign but the sharply drawn, viciously observed middle-class (stereo) types are familiar: Kelly, the high-flying lawyer, and her househusband Clay, both trying to give their children the perfect childhood, free from even a hint of militaristic role play ('we don't do shooting games'); Clay's confrontational plastic-surgeon brother Cash, who loves pointing out their hypocrisy ('They think "Oh no, people are starving", and they can't enjoy how rich they are because they feel so tacky'). There is Cash's Russian girlfriend Kalina, who has a talent for the non-PC thunderbolt, usually laced with a killer dose of racism, and Cash and Clay's idealistic mother Carol, who just wants to make nice. The events of the play are framed by the mysterious presence of a Mr Hadid, and the death of his wife that may or may not be related to the drama that is unfolding. There is plot, lots of it, and more than enough contemporary reference; the play is set six years into this Bush presidency. There is certainly nothing subtle about the playing out of post 9/11 paranoia in this suburban setting. But what really matters is the brisk interplay of these characters, marooned amid what is supposed to be the greatest family holiday of the US calendar.

Seated in the bar of the Royal Court, where he is involved in rehearsals, Norris is clearly at ease with himself. A boyish 47, he has the air of a man who knows he has lobbed a time bomb into London and who is enjoying the tick and the tock as much as the anticipation of the explosion. 'I do the majority of my work with Steppenwolf,' he says, 'which also made its reputation with the same kinetic, angry, balls-to-the-wall aesthetic as here. But that kind of theatre does not necessarily have anything to do with the world as experienced by the audience who come to watch it.' As Norris sees it, the main divide in the theatre - the fourth wall - has not been simply between stage and auditorium, but in subject matter.

'Why should I write something that is not germane to audiences' lives?' he says. 'Theatre has always been an expensive middle-class pursuit. It is a precious, pretentious thing for precious, pretentious people. You drive in your expensive car to the theatre, get it valet parked, and then watch a play about poor people. Why?' It is not necessary to point out that the Royal Court is yet to introduce valet parking. The point is clearly made. Norris, however, is not finished. He wants to go deep into the sort of territory that would have the politically engaged actors and directors who forged the reputation of the Court burying their heads in their hands. This, after all, was the place that introduced the angry young man to the British stage with its first production, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, in 1956; where the drama of political engagement was championed by the likes of Caryl Churchill and Arnold Wesker, Andrea Dunbar, Jim Cartwright and Howards Barker and Brenton.

Put most simply, Norris does not see theatre as a great vehicle for change. Of any kind. 'There is no political value in having sensitive feelings about the world,' he says. 'I don't think it generates political action. You go, you watch, you say that's sad and then you go for a steak.' In short, the hypocrisy of the characters on stage is the hypocrisy of the audience. So if you can't alter the way people approach the world through the dramas you put on stage, what can you do? He shrugs. 'The best you can hope for is to make people slightly uncomfortable. At least if you take the piss out of the audience, they feel they are being addressed.'

That doesn't sound much like a battle cry. He agrees. 'I have no cogent manifesto. I just have a whole bunch of psychological kinks.' Such as? 'The desire to unmask the lies about American family.' He grins. 'It's a nice way of saying I'm getting back at my parents.' They were, for the record, Texas Republicans, and his mother even worked for Bush Snr on his election campaign for Congress. Norris cheerfully announces his years in Freudian analysis - he's a New York-based writer; what else would he do with his spare time? - and greets with enthusiasm the suggestion that he might be alienating his audience. 'If people got up and threw their programmes at the stage that would be thrilling. My acting out against my parents would be getting a response.'

In Chicago he has already had one of those. A newspaper columnist there said it was wrong for the young child actor who plays the daughter to be thrust into such an adult world. He took issue with the language, the on-stage rancour, the suggested infection of her genitals, the references to pornography and the moment when a scene from a skin flick plays on the TV (though out of sight of the child). 'This is a real little girl on whom Norris is visiting his painful adult neuroses,' Chris Jones wrote in the Chicago Tribune. 'A real little girl who doesn't need to be thinking about viruses or other physical manifestations of adult irresponsibility.' The story was picked up across the Chicago media.

Norris dismisses the row. He says that exceptional care has been taken to protect all the girls who have played the part, and points out that there were no complaints when the play transferred to New York. 'There's nothing like waving the pretty pink flag of childhood innocence to get people going,' the writer says. 'It was almost like a feedback loop. The people who were so outraged were the very people we were making fun of in the play.'

I suggest Norris enjoys being subversive for its own sake. 'I'm sneaky. That might be a better word.' And what of the accusation that he is actually just mocking himself? He agrees. 'I don't want the system in which I participate to fail because I'm its beneficiary,' he says, 'but we need to understand that it's not a force for good.' It's hard to imagine the audience not getting the message. Whether they appreciate it or not is another matter.