When it comes to Together (17 June, 9pm), a film directed by Stephen Daldry starring Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy, I’m caught. On the one hand, it’s a good thing that the BBC is still willing, just occasionally, to programme work that relies on dialogue and performance, and not a lot else. How marvellous that such talents should be willing to strut their stuff for our national broadcaster. But on the other hand… I’ll be honest. I’m not caught at all. Boy, did I loathe it. The artificiality, the self-absorption, the shouting. The unfunny jokes. The embarrassing descriptions of sex. The way that it piggybacks, pretty cheaply and obviously, on the pandemic. Above all, the sheer tedium. Every scene – every line – was to me as terrifyingly expansive as a prison sentence.
When theatre’s good, it’s like nothing else: the best thing in the world. But when it’s bad (more often the case), it’s the worst, especially if you’re stuck in the middle of a row, with the interval still an hour away. I watched Together alone, and made full use of the pause button throughout (cups of tea, deep breathing sessions etc). Yet still I suffered. It was just like being in the theatre, first because I was required to stay put for you, my loyal readers, and second because there is no disguising that Dennis Kelly’s script is basically a 90 minute-long, two-handed play, whose action all takes place on the same set (a kitchen that speaks emphatically of its owners’ middle-class status), and whose characters break the fourth wall so often that the device loses all power and meaning, confession sliding into incontinence, what should be intimate and lovely coming to seem instead like a horrible invasion of one’s personal space.
Think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with aubergine katsu where there should be stiff martinis. Horgan and McAvoy (the katsu curry-maker in chief) play a warring couple trapped together in lockdown. Its essence is obviously not as bleak as anything in Edward Albee, not by a long way: the times demand kindness, hope and lots of divulging and emoting, and for this reason, its trajectory is predictable. If our couple, known only as “he” and “she”, are oozing cartoony loathing at the beginning, by the end, they’ve worked things out, sort of.
Yes, Covid has rampaged through their lives – just look at the state of McAvoy’s man bun! – but it’s also a catalyst for change. “So, we’ve been having sex,” she announces at the start of scene three. A rapprochement is now in sight, somewhere beyond the dishwasher. This bit, by the way, was particularly excruciating. Oh no, I thought as the words came out of her mouth. Please don’t say any more. But she did, of course. They did. Full disclosure, including an orgasm efficiency rating and some gross banter about his testicles. The whole thing was like some weird Pornhub version of a Relate counselling session (I’m only imagining!), and while many of us may well have been there in the course of the past few months, the muscles in my bum still ache from the embarrassment.
I’ll sound prissy if I say that this stuff seems inappropriate in the context of so much tragedy. But there it is: the film’s shifts in tone, a marital fumble one minute, a description of what precisely “exponential” means when applied to viral infection rates the next, feels uneasy and unearned. If the comic bits were funnier, and the sad stuff less pious and hectoring, it would help. The problem, though, wouldn’t disappear completely. Each scene begins with a figure: the number of UK Covid deaths as they were at the time when the action is supposedly taking place. Do I really need to say that these numbers are still posted every day, and that while they’re much smaller now, they may not remain so forever?
But my real beef with Together goes deeper than this. Its underlying emotional message, its special pleading for tatty compromise and pathetic half-shares of love, struck me as bogus. Couples who fight all the time, who don’t care even to try to make one another happy, really shouldn’t bother staying together. Life is short. There’s no time to waste. If we didn’t know this before, surely we all do now.
This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web