By playwright Martin Crimp
Imagine a white, middle class family eating Christmas dinner, their conversation spiked with snide remarks about Debbie's unplanned pregnancy, Dad's deafness, Mum's tiredness, Granny's selfishness and Granddad's senility and likely impotence. Anger, stress and neuroses bubble close to the surface, but are kept at bay by a baseline of civility and social convention.
Now imagine a long lost uncle arrives unexpectedly and shatters this fragile harmony, making vicious but accurate attacks on each family member in turn. Imagine the comfortable egoism of middle class family life being ruthlessly dissected, like a patient etherised upon a table, for almost two hours. If you can imagine that, you'll have a pretty shrewd idea of what to expect from Martin Crimp's new play at the Royal Court, In the Republic of Happiness.
Over the years Crimp has forged a distinctive theatrical style - his plays typically eschew traditional plot, characters or "realistic" dialogue. He seems consistently interested in the way the personalities of individuals are moulded by consumerism, commodification and the sinister gaze of the state. He is perhaps best known for his 1997 play Attempts on Her Life, a play without clearly defined characters but with an overflow of descriptions and commentary on the life of the individual, such that the play becomes a study of how character and individuality are socially constructed.
If this is starting to sound a bit heavyweight, it's worth saying that In the Republic of Happiness is at times hilarious. Granddad insists that, "There are all kinds of erections - an erection doesn't have to be rock hard - it can still be useful". From this initial Christmas dinner scene, which teases the audience with the possibility that this might be a straightforward narrative drama, the play moves into a second act in which none of the actors have pre-defined lines.
The speakers begin by all agreeing that "I write the script of my own life" - but it becomes clear that everything from their clothes and opinions to their experience of trauma is expressed in clichés culled from adverts, TV and self-help books. Words and phrases are repeated and mixed up, like food in a blender, until all meaning has been reduced to a banal mush. The sinister transforms into the ridiculous: "My abusive father. My manipulative and abusive cat."
The whole cast regularly launches into surprisingly catchy songs that send up the bland aspirations and petty problems that modern capitalist society encourages us to fixate on - all conveniently answered with a bit of liposuction or therapy or a new outfit. As the speakers prostrate themselves before state security and corporate doublespeak, the play develops what I think is its central message: don't give in to the powers that be.
The final act is the weakest, simply because it is a scene about nothing. Having laid waste to character and narrative, and with the verbal agility of the second act removed, there's almost nothing left.
Overall, the play is enjoyable in the same way that pulling a wobbly tooth or picking a scab can hold a certain compulsive pleasure. Crimp's angry cynicism may be relentless - but this is balanced by the quality of his writing, which is consistently witty and playful. Though this must be a tremendously difficult piece to perform, the cast, without exception, wring a great deal of humour and fun out of Crimp's difficult dialogue.
In the Republic of Happiness may not be the most relaxing Christmas entertainment, but it represents a return to what the Royal Court does best - experimental theatre writing that grapples with the messy experience of modern life.
In the Republic of Happiness is at the Royal Court Theatre until 19 January 2013