Monday, 16 September 2013

Theatre review: The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas

Following what amounted to a teaser season, Vicky Featherstone officially takes over at the Royal Court by bringing Dennis Kelly's work to the main stage for the first time. Kelly might have brought us Matilda, Orphans and Pulling but he's also the man responsible for causing the gods to weep, so this really could have gone either way. The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas follows the mild-mannered title character (Tom Brooke) through a life of doing the right thing, always asking if this is a sign of goodness or cowardice. This question is answered when Gorge meets the fearsome A (Pippa Haywood,) a ruthless business leader who sees in him the potential to join her amoral elite. Redefining his life according to three golden rules of lying and single-mindedness, Gorge soon outshines his mentor to become an über-capitalist monster, willing to skilfully manipulate everyone who comes near him.

Tom Brooke, with his face like a prematurely-hatched owl chick, is often cast as gormless losers so it's an imaginative leap to cast him as character who at times has to be positively demonic, and it's a decision that pays off in spades. He pulls off the many different versions of himself that Gorge creates, as well as the real version which seems to distill itself into pure evil. Not a gleeful malevolence, but one that seems to be destroying him from the inside out, once he flicks the internal switch to doing whatever it takes to get what he wants, this is simply the reality of his world.

The play as a whole though is deeply problematic. Kelly relies too much on using the supporting cast as a chorus to push the story forward and/or comment on Gorge's character. Their narrative comprises the entirety of the prologue - and when a prologue lasts 35 minutes it's not a good sign. Indeed, the play would surely have worked without it, and as far as I can make out it's only there to clumsily set up a few plot twists for later. So it's only after an hour of the nonentity version of Gorge that we reach the crux of the matter with him choosing to become the corporate predator who puts self-interest above all else.

The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas is one of those shows that, however much you try to avoid reviews, quickly gets a word-of-mouth reputation that's hard to miss. Perhaps this was a good thing in this instance, as going in expecting something dire, it came across better than expected. There certainly are positives within the play itself, namely the middle section where a now-powerful Gorge falls obsessively in love with employee Louisa (Kate O'Flynn.) The lengths he's willing to go to to get her provide a genuinely shocking moment that won't be forgotten in a hurry. Featherstone's production also contributes a few nice little detailed touches like the clock actually stopping when A makes her speech about being able to freeze time; and Tom Scutt's set adds a dynamic touch that is lacking in the script itself. There's still many problematic areas though; although by this stage Brooke is acting up a storm, the climactic scene with Joshua James as an estranged relative crowbars in an explanation for the title that makes it seem as if Kelly came up with it first, and tried to make the play fit it later.

Although not, for me, the car crash some have seen it as, The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas sees the Royal Court's new regime open with a couple of links to the past that might have been best left there: On the creative side, the venue famously leaves writers' work pretty much alone with little tinkering. Sometimes it pays off, but here what is probably meant to provide an epic scope (Gorge's story taking in elements of James Frey and Howard Hughes) just makes the play flabby. On a more practical note, the Royal Court has in recent years acquired a reputation for making the experience of seeing a show there as inconvenient as possible. Featherstone has embraced this, one of her first policy changes being to move the start time of most Downstairs shows from 7:30 to 8pm to increase bar takings. With an almost 3-hour opening show that means it's 11pm before the audience can go home, at which point they're probably more concerned with catching the last train or how tired they'll be at work the next morning than with mulling over anything the show might have had to say.

This isn't the catastrophic start to Vicky Featherstone's tenure I'd been told it was, and it's not Dennis Kelly at his most wilfully impenetrable as I'd feared. But it's no triumph, and represents a bit of a limp opening to a new season.

The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas by Dennis Kelly is booking until the 19th of October at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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