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Mosquitoes, a play that shows sensible mothers don't necessarily produce capable children

The dialogue in Lucy Kirkwood’s show at the National Theatre is clever, funny and painful.

Critics sometimes warn that plays about rupturing relationships might be an unwise choice for a date night. With two of the summer’s hottest tickets, though, think twice before offering to take a sibling or your mother instead.

Mosquitoes is outwardly about science – two of its main characters are particle physicists – but it most intensely concerns the art of bringing children into the world and keeping them there. Lucy Kirkwood’s clever, funny, painful dialogue stages a round of bouts within a family over the impact of inheritance, environment and life choices.

Olivia Williams is Alice, who, as a top cog in the team building the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, has stayed close to the model of her mother, Karen Landau (Amanda Boxer), who might have won a Nobel Prize if physics hadn’t been so sexist in the past. Olivia Colman’s Jenny has rebelled against her mother and sister by being unintellectual, horoscope-obsessed and prone to believing in online blogs about, for instance, the risks of inoculation.

Mosquitoes is Kirkwood’s third major play in four years, following Chimerica (2013) and The Children late last year. They suggest a dramatic brand that explores big ideas through populist plotting. Sudden deaths, sexual betrayals, hideous social embarrassments and even nuclear explosions are frames for debate about the post-Cold War relationship between capitalism and communism (Chimerica), the selfishness of baby boomers (The Children), or, in Mosquitoes, the responsibilities of science and the irresponsibility of anti-science.

The script avoids simple opposition between rationalism and intuition. Religious faith and kindness come from unexpected sources and sensible mothers have not necessarily produced offspring better equipped for life, as shown by an excruciatingly funny internet dating scene featuring Alice’s son, Luke (Joseph Quinn), who, in the cruel way of DNA, seems to have been bequeathed the worst elements of all of his relatives.

Rufus Norris’s staging repeatedly has one character tracking or circling another, risking, like the proton beams in the LHC, collision and the release of unpredictable energies. Colman has won Bafta prizes for playing comedy (Twenty Twelve) and tragedy (Broadchurch), but this role allows her to show both tones, sometimes in the same moment, as her open, deceptively happy face betrays the pain of someone clever enough to know that she has been stupid.

In Lucy Kirkwood, Jez Butterworth and James Graham, we begin to see the shape of a generation of playwrights that may one day be talked about as Caryl Churchill, Tom Stoppard and David Hare are now.

A pivotal line in Mosquitoes – “I think some people shouldn’t be allowed to have kids” – spookily proves to be the driving theme of Apologia, the next big event in the diary. The play, by Alexi Kaye Campbell – the author of the award-winning drama The Pride – was premiered quietly on the London fringe eight years ago but gets a West End revival with paparazzi outside and stars in the stalls because Stockard Channing (Grease, The West Wing) has taken the main role of a feted American art historian living in an English cottage.

Channing’s character, Kristin Miller, has summoned her family to supper, which – as evidence from Titus Andronicus to Festen demonstrates – rarely proceeds in drama from aperitifs to cheese without eruption. The matriarch has recently published a hit memoir, which has reminded her admirers of her part in the pro-feminist and anti-Vietnam struggles of the 1960s and 1970s but riled her sons, the successful Peter and the troubled Simon, by omitting any mention of them.

The nub of the play comes when Simon, arriving late to the feast, confides to his mother, “Pretty much everything we are and everything we do is a response against you.” Thus Peter, raised an atheist, is engaged to an intense American evangelical Christian, while Simon, encouraged to debate politics before he had teeth, lives with a TV soap actress who would be unlikely to be interested in a politician unless they appeared in a meme supporting a dolphin with a life-threatening condition. As in Mosquitoes, the different generations might as well be separate species, so contrasting are their priorities and vocabulary.

Joseph Millson brilliantly plays both sons, showing how they have fallen at very different angles to the tree but with some of the same bruises. But the large audiences that Jamie Lloyd’s production deserves will be drawn by the screen stars Laura Carmichael – an English actress meticulously American in accent and body language as the God-fearing girlfriend – and Channing. The latter gives an enthralling character study of someone whose faults of sarcasm, intolerance and self-absorption are balanced by intelligence and culture and who proves, when the play reaches its long-delayed arraignment for maternal neglect, to have a surprisingly plausible defence.

The scarcity of good roles for women in British theatre is a long-running scandal but, between them, Apologia and Mosquitoes deliver half a dozen. 

“Mosquitoes” is at the National Theatre, London SE1, until 28 September

“Apologia” is at the Trafalgar Studios, London SW1, until 18 November

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear