At the beginning of the year I headed to the National for the highly acclaimed Broadway Production of August: Osage County in which Tracy Letts dissects the good old American staple of discordant family life. This is a show which truly dazzles and true to Steppenwolf’s vibrant, energetic and ‘in yer face’ acting style, the whole thing is carried off with an amazing energy which would put the most zealous British actor to shame. Indeed I and my companions came out of the theatre all bursting with enthusiasm and near gone idol worship for this melodramatic play which when, one thinks of it, is simply a very good soap opera on a wonderfully detailed set. Nothing wrong with that I hear you say, and so you are right, but is it really worth all the hyperbole that we and even countless professional critics have heaped upon it?
Lett’s intended the play to be a microcosm of the embattled and immoral America that he sees now, but as this piece unfolds, this grander design does not seem to ring true, the recriminations and screaming matches doing little but whip the audience up in a frenzy of immediate excitement none of which then turns into thoughtful analogising. When we watch powerful matriarch, Deanna Dunagan monstrously ricochet around the stage like a painful hurricane, we are not thinking of America’s Bush style aggression but of a hurt and embittered woman, whose past has indelibly lead her to wreck her future.
It is true that this is a piece which magnificently holds the audiences attention for the entire 3 hour run of the piece. Which is a feat not to be held lightly in this age of 1 hour modern plays. It is refreshing to see something new and epic on the British Stage, and a joy to find something which is actually well written and rip roaringly entertaining to boot. I have never been in an audience at the National that was so vocally involved in a piece; the American’s certainly know how to work a crowd. Gasps of embarrassed laughter mingle with ‘no’s’ of horror at these creatures jungle like behaviour to one another. It is just so un-British to see things of this nature on stage. We are somehow able to deal with the violence inherent in much British theatrical text, but not the social embarrassment which can be caused by a very vocal, very truthful old woman. It just isn’t done. And so whilst these Americans pour their dirty laundry onto the stage and we watch with eagle eyed fascination punctuated with jaw achingly funny moments, it is easy to see why the fascination with this play has grown so large, and why it quite rightly has a sold out run at the National. But a great play?
The immediacy of this work is its strong point. Once taken away and analysed and mulled over, it becomes quite hard to see where the meat is on this well bodied piece. It is really just the story of a dysfunctional family, which sadly is no longer a unique view of the human experience. And whilst it is peppered with fascinatingly complex, awful, touching and real characters, nothing of any political import is really learnt, despite Lett’s assertion that it is intended as a microcosm of America. A friend of mine is writing a play at the moment about a very touchy political subject and has realised that he must start with the individual story to tell that of their society. Yet if you get lost in the individual as Lett’s here seems to have done, the society is hinted at but never really represented, the characters become too much of an individual and so it is a character piece and nothing else. Again, nothing wrong with that, but not a multi-layered state of the nation text perhaps.
But I guess the American’s have always been good at first impressions – one is so blinded by the peroxide blonde that one doesn’t see the darkening roots. Dashing in to the Second World War fray; for all the world saviours, but underneath all the bravado, late and for a price. Lett’s has (albeit unintentionally) hoodwinked us; so astonished by the ferocity of the performances we forgive or forget the lack of social relevance. It is not until we are let out of the power of these stars, until we escape their razzle dazzle that this play’s slightness is revealed.
American writers have done and still do write great state of the nation plays and it is usually through the medium of a dysfunctional family that this is done; one need not mention Arthur Miller (although somehow I have felt compelled to). However just as Billy Flynn croons in Chicago it would appear that we have all been bedazzled by Steppenwolf’s razzle; not a bad thing the audience cry! But not a masterpiece either. I want some substance with my spectacle, even if I have to go a little further afield than an acclaimed ‘hit’ to get it.