Casual cruelties

Dennis Kelly's new play is over-ambitious, sure, but it's not as bad as all that.

In last week's issue of the New Statesman (29 March), Andrew Billen reviewed Dennis Kelly's new play The Gods Weep, in which Jeremy Irons plays an ageing businessman dividing the spoils of his corporate kingdom. Billen found the play "outrageous, ridiculous, over the top, confusingly constructed, politically naive, uncertain in tone, by turns portentous and unintentionally funny". Here, our theatre blogger Gina Allum offers an alternative view.

Jeremy Irons takes the lead in Dennis Kelly's ambitious but entertaining new play for the RSC, The Gods Weep. He plays Colm, the ruthless head of a greedy corporation, as he decides his succession and divides the business between two repulsive hirelings (while passing over his Frankenstein's monster of a son). The inspiration of King Lear dictates the structure of the play, which not so much hitches a ride on the original as gets dragged, kicking and screaming, in its wake.

In many ways, a boss such as Colm, wielding overweening power, makes for an inspired choice as natural heir to the absolute monarch. And the notion that multinational corporations can have a potentially malign influence on affairs of state is hardly a new one. But a company and a country are manifestly not the same thing, and this is where the Lear template breaks the play's back.

The first act is on safe ground in the boardroom. The cast, decked out in grey tailoring, negotiates the black and chrome of the table and the slabs of anonymous corporate design. A sad tree, choked by gravel, completes the sterile scene. I enjoyed the opening sequence of office politicking: John Stahl's performance as Castile, Colm's right-hand henchman, is more than a passing nod to the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, even if he doesn't quite have Tucker's genius for the well-placed expletive. Jonathan Slinger as Richard has a pudgy, bespectacled softness that belies the monster beneath, and Helen Schlesinger's Catherine is a study in chilly, chain-smoking ambition.

As for what the suits were arguing about, I'm fairly sure that Belize was significant. Something very bad was going down in Belize. Belize, you understand, was Bad News. But no matter as to the detail, for it becomes clear that the real news is unfolding back at the office, where the backstabbing and sniping, in a wildly metamorphic stroke, become literal: seriously, with armies and everything. Catherine and Richard swap one uniform for another and are now generals of two rival military factions, razing all before them. This is just too much to swallow. To lift a line from the play, "No, no, no, no, no!"

Baulk and boggle as we might at this leap from corporate to state, let us at least grant it a certain nightmarish logic. The casual cruelties of "culling" the bottom 15 percent of the workforce now translate to real deaths, and are subject to a grisly inflation. If nothing else, Kelly points out the inherent violence of much "business is war" speak, but it's certainly not enough of an insight to string out for half the play.

I had high hopes -- you see how I was gamely warming to the theme here -- that the air-conditioning grilles of the office scenes would be ripped open by hordes of crawling commandos, or by rampant vegetation reclaiming the space after the apocalypse. Sadly, this never quite happened, although a couple of the vents did get politely broken. Meanwhile, and more interestingly, Colm is left out in the cold; the exiled king in the wasteland. Jeremy Irons has taken up residence under the sad, institutional tree, which now doubles as the blasted heath. Again, the staging slightly disappoints: the gravel proves to be something of a mood killer, as the bucolic scenes are accompanied by a less than bucolic scrunching throughout.

The final act has Colm painstakingly wooing the daughter of a competitor that he had once finished off. The lovely Barbara, played by Joanna Horton, does eventually concede forgiveness, and the changing relationship between them is genuinely touching. There is a certain doe-eyed fragility to Irons that lends itself well to the newly vulnerable Colm, scourged by disaster, purified by nature. Their attempts to eke out the good life from squirrels, acorns and sheep have a wistful absurdity about them, and there are times when Irons looks like a Beckett clown as he struggles to fully participate in hunter-gatherer activities: "I could hold things. One always needs someone to hold things."

Kelly's script is a masterclass in refusing the big moment or the tragic scene, and the cast handles the colloquial redundancies and repetitions of the text well -- including all the marvelously gratuitous swearing -- as the actors splice pathos with bathos: "Inside I cried my lungs out. Outside I carried on eating the lamb." And the range of the play is breathtaking: Lear, with bits of Macbeth thrown in for good measure; profiteering big business; personal redemption; lyrical wonder at the cosmos. Over-reaching, probably. Over-long -- definitely.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State