Ecstasy has had its day

This devised piece of theatre isn't groundbreaking, it's bankable.

Mike Leigh's Ecstasy comes to the West End on a surge of praise and goodwill from critics and punters alike. It's just had a sell-out run in Hampstead, where they trotted down the hill to the Swiss Cottage theatre in their droves to look at all the actors playing the Kilburn poor.

In the face of this unanimity, I'm afraid my own position is less one of ecstasy than of apostasy. I think Ecstasy has had its day. Originally devised in 1979, and performed six months into Thatcher's premiership, it must have crackled with an altogether heretical energy at the time. Set in a Kilburn bedsit (something I feel qualified to talk about), the actors are cooped and cramped in a tiny section of the stage; the crappy 1950s furniture takes equal billing with the actors as chief protagonists. There's poverty, material and linguistic: the characters' chat is inconsequential, redundant, a raid on the inarticulate; no one does the sad carouse as well as Mike Leigh.

A devised show is a strange and wondrous beast. A combination of research and improvisation can mean dialogue that rarely gets beyond the pedestrian, but dialogue is rarely the point. There are also jackpot accidents of timing, the sort of special comedy that can only be spontaneous, and above all a more than compensating sense of physicality -- the performers' rhythms, the way they move, tends to be more important than what they are saying. The director's job is to splice together the best bits, and make a patterning of sorts out of the inchoate.

This is apparently the first time that Leigh has revisited one of his devised pieces (it was originally created with Stephen Rea, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Sheila Kelley), and I'm not so sure it was well-advised. Stepping into a devised role is worse than wearing someone else's shoes. The roles are more than bespoke, they are emanations from the original actors.

The current batch do a doughty job at their impersonations: Siân Brooke's gin-soaked petrol pump attendant Jean is a twentysomething trapped in a fiftysomething's body, which she jerks around like a tired marionette; stiffened, ground down, careworn. Ebullient friend Dawn (Sinéad Matthews) gets impressively pissed, sliding away from her object, whether it's the loo or a glass of water, and does spectacular dances. Of her wedding, she remembers only "the toilets in The Old Bell" (my local, during the bedsit years). She speaks with the smoky croak of fags and booze. Craig Parkinson's jilted Len has an unassuming, bespectacled poise and quietude. His kindly, if tautologous, comment on Jean's bedsit is, "it's small, but it's compact".

Kilburn High Road as a wrackline for immigrants -- these characters wash up from the Midlands, mostly, as well as Ireland, in the case of Dawn's husband (who is called, not unexpectedly, Mick) -- is a fecund idea. As is the desperation and emptiness of working lives, perfectly summed by Alison Chitty's set, where the dead flowers on the telly sit next to an empty packet of Roses chocolates.

But for all the cast's virtuoso ventriloquism, there's a certain physical charge, typical of the devised show, which is lacking. It's way too long, and has some structural wrinkles that are in the "good idea at the time" category: Roy, who makes a couple of early appearances as Jean's violent lover, and even more so Val, his hell hath no fury wife, should perhaps have been allowed a merciful death, even in 1979. And did we really need Jean's spelled-out breakdown at the end, when it could have, should have, remained unsaid?

In the programme the artistic director at Hampstead, Edward Hall, cites Ecstasy as an example of what subsidy can achieve by way of the new and the risk-taking, which I think is a little wide of the mark, considering this is now a 32-year-old play, directed by an über-bankable auteur. Given that Hampstead does have a new, devised show -- running from 12 May -- without the imprimatur of Leigh, perhaps such rhetoric is best saved for the genuine, contemporary article.

"Ecstasy" runs at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2 until 28 May.

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism