Martin Crimp’s The Treatment is quite something. For great swathes of its 2h15min running time you’re not entirely sure quite what is unfolding in front of you – facts and truth are intriguingly elusive, always slipping from your grasp – but then all the strands come together in a stunning and shattering climax.
Certainly, the tone is one that throws you off-kilter straight away for this is one dark comedy. Anne (played with terrific complexity by Aisling Loftus) is a vulnerable married woman. She seems to have suffered an extended period of domestic abuse where she had been imprisoned by her husband, locked in her kitchen, for months on end. Maybe more.
Only the play does not open with her recounting this trauma to a doctor or a psychiatrist, but to a pair of (married) film producers, Jennifer (Indira Varma) and Andrew (Julian Ovenden) in their luxurious New York office. For Anne appears not be looking for healing, but for money. You see, Anne is recalling these harrowing details of her life because she is selling her story as a film script.
So, right off the bat, Crimp is making a comment on human motivation. But this play unfolds in interesting and unexpected ways.
Of course, the producers love this story. And of course, they don’t care much for Anne’s welfare or the need to stay faithful to the facts of her life. For what is truth when it needs to be shaped and stylised into a compelling screenplay? Yes, superficially, this is a satire on the callousness of the movie industry and our need for our own fifteen minutes, but Crimp’s writing is also working deeper than that, for here he is also examining facts and lies, and how truth lies somewhere in-between.
Excited about the story’s prospects, the producers lure in a high-profile actor (Gary Beadle) to assure finance and an audience, and rope in a failed playwright (Ian Gelder) to turn Anne’s facts into a truth that audiences can swallow. Only these two also bring with them emotional baggage and complex motivations also.
And so, together, the group weave a truth from the facts. But it is not Anne’s truth. Or is it? For that’s not to say Anne has been lying (maybe what she recalls really is factually correct) but the truth of her imprisonment – its causes and its consequences – well, maybe even she does not understand or can fully comprehend it. Perhaps there’s a level of complicity there that she cannot confront.
And this speaks to all of us as we too create some form of fiction about ourselves – we all have a story to tell, and what is a story if not an interpretation of facts? And so, in line with this, each character here is living a lie to some degree, whether wilfully or unintentionally. And it is this that keeps the audience insecure, unsure of their footing. It is this which keeps this play’s truth constantly unravelling.
Now, I loved this. I revelled in the way it challenges neat, conventional assumptions about human behaviour. But that’s not to say everyone will feel the same. The night I went, I’d say about a fifth of the audience left at the interval. I don’t think they hated it; I think they were just bemused.
And that’s such a shame as had they stayed to the end, their opinion would be much changed. Much like Our Town, the year before last, which also saw audience exoduses at the intervals, patience pays off. Stick with The Treatment. Stay. Don’t leave. Because the payoff is huge.
It’s interesting, though isn’t it – a bit of an aside, I know – but some audiences aren’t that patient. Has that always been the case, I wonder? Or is it a more recent development, reflecting shorter attention spans and a need to immediately understand what is unfolding in front of you?
Embrace the opposite, I say. Embrace the fact that you will be out of your comfort zone, and respect the fact that Martin Crimp knows what he is doing as, my, this comes together well.
That’s not to say that everything is flawless here, as with most shows there are a few bumps. Perhaps the set changes aren’t as smooth as they should be, for example. On each occasion (and there’s more than a few), a black screen descends across the stage and indie-style, neo-noir Taxi Driver-esque footage is beamed onto the screen. Only it’s the same footage every time – the mean streets of NY as seen from the passenger seat of a yellow cab – and each time it’s the same intense score accompanying the video.
And perhaps the romantic sub-plot involving Anne and Andrew isn’t fully believable, but this is small fry in the scheme of this production. Lyndsey Turner’s direction is perfectly balanced, allowing the ambiguity in the writing and its interrogation of language to lead. And the impressive cast capture the complexity and contradictions of their characters beautifully. This is dark, yes, but gloriously so.
Almeida Theatre, London, to June 10, 2017
Tickets from £10
All production images by Marc Brenner.