It is impossible to miss the unwittingly apt timing of Bruce Norris’ play The Low Road, a self-described ‘fable of free-market economics and cut-throat capitalism’, in the week when the death of Thatcher has led to the re-emergence of debates which have not been this prevalent or strongly waged since the years of her premiership.
The play’s themes of individualism and community, genuine and tokenistic charity, greed, materialism and generosity are as relevant today as they were in eighteenth-century America. At the interval, I was left with the feeling that it made a refreshing change to see a new play dealing with modern issues by distancing them to a historical setting – the opposite of the current fashion to make an unnecessary relocation of a historical play to a contemporary setting with the sole purpose of ramming its ‘relevance’ down the audience’s throats.
Then the second half started… and did just that, with a modern interlude as we witnessed a conference Q and A on the financial crisis. I’ll forgive Norris though as this section was one of the funniest in the play and gave the actors involved an opportunity to milk some hilarious caricatures.
The whole cast was excellent, with a brave performance by Johnny Flynn as the unremittingly unlikable protagonist Jim Trumpett. Thatcher would certainly have approved of the enterprising Jim’s ability to pull himself up by his bootstraps and ensure his prosperity, even if this was at the expense of the surrogate family that had taken him in as a baby (and of almost everyone else that has the misfortune to have any dealings with him). The values of capitalism and the free market may seem unpalatable when put bluntly – and screamed at the bewildered members of the religious colony who have just rescued, fed and clothed him – but they are the values that our society is governed by.
I’ve read comments criticising the play as a cheap shot against capitalism, yet narrated by Adam Smith the play sets out a scenario that could be seen to advocate it. Predictably it is Jim, with his individualistic outlook and championing of cut-throat capitalism, that prospers – and his descendents are seen to live on and thrive. The poor and the disadvantaged who find their home in the New Light of Zion Colony fail to look out for themselves – preferring to help other unfortunates – and they come to a horrible end.
The play, then, merely brings out the viewer’s own opinions of capitalism. If you believe that profit justifies immorality, and that the poor, weak and idle should be left to fend for themselves, you would see vindication of your beliefs in the play’s outcome. It is the sentiment of the typical Royal Court audience that allows this tongue-in-cheek, satirical look at the creation of the capitalist financial system to be a negative one. It is their sensibilities that condemn Jim for his actions, and sympathise with the kind-hearted yet naive members of the Colony. The audience laughs at the financial leaders in the Q and A, but the humour comes from accurate characterisation and the recognition of the well-worn arguments of the privileged and upwardly mobile. And Norris isn’t afraid to bite the hand that feeds him – or at least to give it a quick nip – with more than one jibe aimed at the funding of the subsidised arts.
Jim’s assertion that ‘’tis and ‘twas heedless on your part to care for one [a heavily disabled community member] who could contribute so little to your livelihood’ is certainly true when applied to the Colony’s rescue of Jim, who repays their kindness with disdain, violence and theft. Yet Jim’s arrogance, pig-headedness and total lack of empathy means that he can’t see the irony of this statement in the light of his own recent predicament. It is perhaps the play’s highlighting of the hypocrisy and double-standards of many of the proponents of a free-market economy, and the cruelty that ensues when this is rolled out to include social policy, that has riled those complaining of the play’s left-leaning attitude. That, or feeling alienated when they disagree with the pretty much unanimous reaction of the audience. Dismissing the play because you dislike its politics is a lazy critique – nobody is apolitical and criticism of capitalism is a perfectly valid stance.
The Royal Court is renowned for its challenging and political new works – if you don’t want a play that challenges the status quo you might be better off seeing something less controversial like Wicked or Phantom of the Opera. Or Legally Blonde, a musical where a well-educated, attractive, mega-rich women uses her father’s money to buy her way on to an elite degree course on a whim, and overcomes the apparently disabling disadvantages of wearing pink and owning a Chihuahua to become a successful lawyer. Attorney Emmett Forrest has worked hard for years to lift himself from his humble origins but it is when he befriends the wealthy Elle and she buys him an expensive suit that he really gets taken seriously. The fact that I take exception to some of the assumptions and implied attitudes of Legally Blonde didn’t prevent me from enjoying it, and similarly The Low Road is more than just its ‘political leanings’ (although as I have already argued, they are implied rather than solidly embedded in the text).
Random left-field ending aside (so random that I can’t really elaborate without it being a spoiler), this is a solid thought-provoking period drama with enduring themes – but it’s also thoroughly entertaining.