The script for Martin Crimp’s 1997 drama Attempts On Her Life looks more like an experimental novel than a play. There are no specified characters, but only a dash in the dialogue to indicate a change of speaker, and a few sparse stage directions dotted throughout. The rest is left up to the director — Archie Thomson in this case, for the ‘Sunscreen’ production at the Burton Taylor Studio. Crimp once said in a 2007 interview with the Socialist Review that “I want it to be different every time. I want it to mutate, to respond. All plays do that to a certain extent but I wanted to set that as a stamp on this play.” In a very postmodern fashion, Crimp takes the notion of the playwright, and destroys it, enacting his very own Barthesian ‘death of the author’.
The play is perplexing. Set in what seems to be a kind of dystopian gameshow, six actors, ‘compete’ in 17 different scenarios, each one playing a completely different character in every scenario. The scenes ranged from those depicting intense psychological torture to one scene in which Cassian Bilton sings a cheesy karaoke number, accompanied by Calam Lynch and Will Stevens dancing in the background. What was so impressive about the acting in this production was its sheer range. One scene saw Mary Higgins and Cassian Bilton interrogating a brave Maddy Walker, whose resilience was soon worn down by their sinister inquisition. In the very next scene, Higgins and Walker became two gossiping middle-aged women, smoking on a bench and chuckling together, putting on almost caricature-like Scottish accents.
Lynch’s opening speech, where he left a frenzied message on the voicemail of the unseen ‘Anne,’ was powerful and intense, flecks of spit flying from his mouth. Lynch and Stevens were both hilarious and profoundly sinister in the next scene, where they acted out their grand vision of walnut beds and polished parquet floors in front of a perplexed and impatient Imo Reeve-Tucker. What was so effective about this scene was that one was never sure who the characters were supposed to be, and one was never quite certain where the balance of power lay: command of the situation seemed to oscillate between Reeve-Tucker and the two men. Right from the first few scenes it was clear that this was an assured, professional, and highly capable cast. There were a few moments where some of the characters’ accents were ropey, straying dangerously close to farce, but this was a small flaw and one which did not detract from the overall impact of the play.
Though the drama was challenging to navigate as an audience member, that is not to say that it ever seemed self-indulgent or pointlessly obscure. There were moments where Crimp’s surrealist visions emerged as social commentary: one scene involved Bilton and Higgins playing a pair of glazed-eyed, slimy salespeople tasked with selling a new car, ‘The Annie.’ If turning the unseen ‘Annie’ into a car were not sinister enough, the superficiality of the advert — undoubtedly a comment on capitalism — gradually mutated into a proclamation of the merits of an Arian state. The zombie-like stares and lobotomised smiles created one of the funniest yet most deeply disturbing scenes of the play.
As with much postmodern theatre, the play often seemed to be more about theatre itself than anything else. The space was minimalist, consisting of a few black chairs for the performers — who were all dressed in black — to sit on, while the only real props were the ‘instructions’ and objects for the actors to use in their scenes, suspended from the ceiling in envelopes. The intimate, sparse nature of the set meant that it felt more like an artwork than a play, and one with little pretence towards realism. When the actors sat back down at the end of each scene, one wasn’t quite sure whether they were still in character: their laughs and heckles at certain points gave the impression of cast members watching their peers in a dress rehearsal. This was a production which successfully exploited the blurred boundary between theatre and reality.
This clash reached its peak towards the end of the play, in the scene in which Maddy Walker played a pretentious European art critic. While the scene was funny in its ruthless satire, behind the comedy lay a sinister idea. The artwork in the scene was about ‘attempts on her life,’ but the nature of these attempts remained ambiguous, with Crimp seeming to gesture towards the possibilities of suicide, murder, torture and so on, without ever laying his cards on the table. What was most disconcerting, and what made the production so powerful, was the sense in which all of the horrific events in the play became pieces of performance art, indistinguishable from one another. Similarly, the wide variety of interpretations which the play offers only intensifies the discomfort, and this production managed to leave these interpretive strands wide open. Crimp seems to suggest that these ‘attempts on her life’ could be genuine torture scenarios in a dystopian nightmare. Or they could mean absolutely nothing at all — and that is what is most frightening. Thomson and his actors balanced the comic with the deeply sinister, in what was a stunning production of an immensely powerful play.
‘Attempts on Her Life’ ran at the Burton Taylor Studio from 8-12 March; for more information please visit the production’s Facebook page.