It’s not even the end of February but I’m pretty sure Girls & Boys, the latest play from Dennis Kelly, will be making an appearance in many Top Plays lists at the end of the year, including my own. It is absolutely superb, a pitch perfect play that follows a rise and fall of a marriage between a man and a woman, all told solely from the viewpoint of the woman, played by the exceptional Carey Mulligan.
In fact, Girls & Boys is nothing but Carey Mulligan. It is, in effect, a 100-minute monologue with Carey narrating the story from her first meeting of the man who would go on to be her husband as they waited at the airport (“I met my husband in the queue to board an easyJet flight and I have to say I took an instant dislike to the man.”) through their shared passions and mutual support, on to their marriage, their kids and then the sharp decline in their love and partnership.
And this monologue is deftly written, weaving in genuinely laugh-out loud moments with smart observations on behaviour, But there are also shadows here. Forewarnings. Something is on the horizon, something will be revealed.
But most interestingly, this long speech is broken up with scenes of Carey playing with her two children. Only there are no actual children on the stage. Instead, for these scenes, director Lyndsey Turner pulls up the plain screen behind Carey and, instead, has her play out these domestic scenes of two children typically running truant.
Yet curiously, there is never any sign of the woman’s husband in these scenes – it is just the mother and her girl and boy. Well, the impression of the two children. There are no speaking parts for the children and no actors; rather, their presence is implied. Or assumed.
And curiouser and curiouser, Es Devlin’s set is drained of colour. Not at first. When the partition is first pulled up, for just a moment, the scenery is beautifully coloured but that quickly drains away to be replaced with a grey-blue saturation, bar the odd toy or tea towel. Is this life being drained out of these scenes of domesticity? Or are they like our dreams, which are only ever in monochrome?
Carey Mulligan captivates. So seductive and brilliant is her delivery, and her performance, that these oddities slip out of your mind as quickly as they slip in. The way she charms the audience, bringing us onside with her little stories and her jokes… She’s flawless. There’s even a moment where she suddenly snaps, “Fuck.” And you think, oh, has she made a mistake? But no – it’s her character that has made the slip! Her performance, I say it again, is FLAWLESS. She is glorious.
But as the mood darkens, the laughs give way to a haunting mix of steeliness and vulnerability. This is an excellently nuanced performance, and it was a privilege to witness both her and this production.
Now, any more than this and I would be giving away the finale. Though I am aware other reviews might have given away more, I am reluctant to do so.
However. There is much to be discussed about what this play, in its entirety, is addressing, and I want to say a few words on that. OK? So, from here on in, it’s spoilers. MASSIVE SPOILERS. So, look away now if we want to avoid them…
Basically, I’m going to give away the ending.
Look away now if you want to avoid them. And you should if you are still to see this play as its power is in its slow reveal.
Usually I don’t do this spoiler-y thing, but I feel it’s critical in this instance. First, because I think Dennis Kelly is doing something clever here, and second, because I want to double down on my criticism of how another critic has responded.
So, you ready?
OK, here we go:
Basically, Dennis Kelly has taken Medea and flipped it.
The reveal in this relationship is that as that as their marriage collapsed, the woman’s husband slaughtered their two children with a knife. As revenge. As punishment. Which is exactly what Medea did – she murdered her own two children, also with a knife.
Now, I was pretty sure these parallels with Medea were not accidental. It hit me as soon as the lights rose up at the end of the play; surely there were just too many similarities to be coincidence? But my suspicions were pretty much confirmed when I went to glance through the play-text just before I started writing this, for some other details, only to spot a dedication to Euripides at the front.
It’s smart; it’s brilliant, but why do it?
Because this is one of the most explicitly feminist plays I have ever seen, and that it has been written by a man is very important as Dennis, I feel, is specifically targeting men here. He is luring men in with humour and laughs, only to confront them with the horror of the toxic masculinity that remains a poison in our society.
When women writers do this, men can easily dismiss it as a piece of drum-beating. Not so easy to do it when it comes from the pen of a man, I’m afraid. And the vehicle Dennis chose for his examination of gender is one of the most famous plays – and one of the most notorious female characters – in theatre history.
And it’s an extremely well-informed choice for the idea that women kill their children in some drastic act of hysterical revenge is, much like Medea herself, a male fantasy. It just doesn’t happen like that. These events depicted in this play are known as ‘family annihilations’, which, as Carey/Dennis explains at the tail end of the piece, “95% of the people who do this are men.”
Here, Dennis is ripping apart the fallacy of Medea for all the world to see and, my god, is this welcome. It is men who execute their children as revenge for some wrong, as justification for their pain, as whatever; not women. Yet, it seems, his message that men are responsible for this violence – an act that can never be justified – was not understood by all in the audience.
Dennis smartly wrote this as a monologue for a woman because, well, what is the point of view of the husband here? What would it mean? What would be its purpose? Basically, the act of premeditated murder of children can never, ever be justified. There is no acceptable reason for it.
Had the husband been dramatized, would he have spoken about his emasculation at the hands of his more successful wife? Of his loss of attractiveness? At the failing of his company? Well, so what. That’s what Dennis is saying here. Why should we hear from him when nothing he could ever say could ever explain away what he did? There’s no point.
This, though, seems to have been lost on Michael Billington who made a comment on his own review of the play (as you do) that domestic violence is “a complex issue” and unsuitable subject matter for a one-person show.
I flipped at this, I utterly flipped. Not only was this very point addressed directly by this play, but the fact that we still have men today who think male violence is “a complex issue” that desperately needs the rationale and input of men who commit these acts is, well… I mean, there is no nuanced debate to be had on domestic abuse. The fact that we still have men on earth who think otherwise shows that Dennis Kelly’s play – with men firmly in its sights – remains desperately needed.
Royal Court Theatre, London, to March 17, 2018
All production images by Marc Brenner.