Saturday, 22 June 2013

Theatre review: Death Tax

The main event in the Royal Court's Open Court season is a six-week repertory, in which a company of actors takes on a different play every week, with just one week's rehearsal and one of performances. I missed the opening offering from the new Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone (word on Twitter suggests I didn't miss much) but the second play in the series is directed by her most trusted lieutenant from the National Theatre of Scotland, John Tiffany. Lucas Hnath's Death Tax revolves around money, and how it seems to corrupt your life whether you've got too much of it or not enough. Set in a Florida nursing home, much of it centres on Tina (Natasha Gordon,) a nurse who finds herself tempted when a wealthy, elderly resident accuses her of trying to speed up her death - and offers her a much-needed incentive not to.

It's late 2010, and if Maxine dies before the end of the year her daughter will inherit the bulk of her fortune. But if she makes it to 2011 the death tax laws change, and the government gets a much bigger chunk. Following an argument, Maxine (Anna Calder-Marshall) is convinced her daughter is trying to speed up the process and collect the lot. Thinking Tina is an accomplice, she offers her a bribe: If Maxine lives to the 1st of January, she'll give Tina $100,000. But the older woman's health is deteriorating fast even without sabotage, so the nurse and her boss and ex-boyfriend Todd (Sam Troughton) will have to sink some money into her medical care themselves to keep her going that long.


Hnath's play has a nice line in black comedy and a complex morality that sees even the more objectionable actions reveal a reasoning behind them, while the nicer-seeming characters expose some dark areas when exposed to the pressures and possibilities of money. Tina's involvement in the scheme stems from her desire to win back custody of her son, but there's questions raised about how good a mother she was in the first place. She also takes advantage of the fact that Todd still loves her to get his financial help, but it's not like he doesn't have an ulterior motive of his own. And while our preconceptions about Maxine's daughter (Siobhan Redmond) seem to be confirmed when she finally turns up, hearing her side of the story quickly muddies things further.


A final scene that sees Maxine somehow still alive 20 years later, with Troughton now as her grandson showing the enduring effects of her relationship with his mother, does feel a bit as though the writer is trying to cram in a few more themes, with the way the US health system only treats those with money, and the question of how long medical science will eventually be able to keep people alive for, jostling for room. But overall this is an interesting little play, and Tiffany's production doesn't betray much of the rush it was rehearsed in (admittedly I saw it on the final day of performance so the actors would at least have had a chance to warm into their roles.) Chloe Lamford's simple set is a large wooden container that falls open to reveal the nursing home room, presumably a design that'll be running, with variations, across the rep season. It's rather well-suited to the Brechtian touches of Hnath's play (complete with Gordon announcing each scene before it begins.) Let's see what the company come up with for the rest of the run.

Death Tax by Lucas Hnath has now ended its run at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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