Dying City

Royal Court Upstairs Theatre, London

What an extraordinary playwright Christopher Shinn is and what a mesmerising production James Macdonald has produced for his latest play, Dying City.

To a very large extent, it’s the Royal Court we have to thank for bringing Shinn to our attention. It was their Young Writers Festival that first introduced the American playwright to British audiences some seven or eight years ago. Since then, he’s gone on to produce a series of small-scale but ruminative plays – Four, Other People, Where do We live – which exert a terrific theatrical grip if tending to replay a certain emotional circularity.

There’s usually a gay character in there and an exploration of larger social issues indirectly through a tight-knit, often triangular group. Shinn has never been afraid to tackle the big subjects – racism, post 9/11 – if sieved through a typically personal American prism. But in his case, his hothouse, invariably New York gaze is beginning to add up to a trenchant charting of a generation.

Not for him the English style journalese of a David Hare or the dialectics of a David Edgar. Dying City may be partly dubbed `post-Iraq’. But such conflict based issues only begin to surface in a hurtling ending of domestic revelations and recriminations.

Instead, in a tight, taut production awash with echoes of Sarah Kane – the writer with whom Macdonald worked so closely – in its sense of brooding disaster and catastrophe, we get the reworking of a theme Shinn explored in the earlier, The Coming World, in which the centrifugal force of the piece is based around two contrasting twin brothers. It is only in the change of heart one of them, Craig, experiences as a soldier in Iraq and especially at Abu Ghraib, that we get the play’s tenuous topical link.

It is enough. Once again, the remarkable Andrew Scott – an actor who gives off emotional disturbance like Tommy Lee Jones sexual charisma – plays the two brothers as he did in The Coming World. This time, he is both, gay actor, Peter and idolised Craig, posted to Iraq and subsequently killed, leaving behind therapist wife, Kelly. (The play’s title refers to an email Craig sends to his brother from Iraq describing the effect of American forces on that country).

Now most writers, given this scenario, might choose to limit themselves by simply going down the obvious route of political recrimination and giving us a diatribe about waste, loss and the obscenity of war and this war in particular.

Shinn, though, goes for something much more challenging – a psyco-sexual critique, a game of consequences and cause and effect, and the parallels to be made between individual male and national behaviour. The more one comes to think about it, after the lights have finally gone out on Macdonald’s shimmering, minimalist production with Peter Mumford’s stinging blue light that narrows and expands for past and present time, the more you come to realise the theme of Dying City is, naturally, about power but also, quintessentially, about invasion – emotional and military and the connections between them.

There are only three characters on Shinn’s stage but through reported dialogue we get a whole picture of the influence on the adult Craig and Peter of a childhood haunted by a Vietnam veteran father and the violence his wartime experiences laid on them. The long arm of history stretches its tentacles into Craig and Kelly’s bedroom even as it drives `needy’, egocentric and obsessive Peter to `invade’ Kelly’s space when all she wants and must do is distance herself as far away from him as she can.

What is hard to express, here, however, is the sheer intensity Scott and the equally sublime Sian Brooke as Kelly find in the passages between them and the spaces they leave so achingly unspoken. From the off, Brooke’s Kelly is a woman defended, every movement a guard against Scott’s demanding Peter. Again, another actress might have gone for vulnerability. Brooke however conveys a whole range of other colours: cool, watchful reserve, suspicion, and, as we come to understand, a terrible and disappointed sexual hunger.

Together, as they switch moods, time frames and in Scott’s case, characters, they are giving a master class in quality and control, unmatched by anything else seen so far this year. With this performance Scott, like Daniel Mays who has just finished his run in Motortown in the Court’s downstairs theatre, is shaping up to become one of the outstanding young actors. Brooke too is a revelation.

On for another four weeks, I can’t recommend it highly enough. A little gem, it beats Blackbird, every time, for subtlety and the conveying of dark, deep, inner turmoil and confusions. CAROLE WODDIS

First published in Rogues and Vagabonds, May 2006