Martin Crimp’s The City — which was first performed in 2008 but feels older; as if perhaps it could have been written at any point in the last thirty years — is a strange, increasingly alarming play: after initially giving the impression of being a (slightly awkwardly staged) kitchen sink drama of sorts, it rapidly evolves in the latter half into a more surreal, often-disturbing dramatic experience that has something of Pinter or Sarah Kane about it.
It is ostensibly the story of a horrifically unhappily-married couple, Clair (Selina Boyack, pictured) and Chris (Ronnie Simon), who both treat their relationship like a game of chess in which one can only have an advantage by seeing several sentences ahead in a conversation — wedlock as psychological warfare.
Crimp is fascinated with language and meaning, components which form the structural basis for the play. Clair and Chris tell each other anecdotes and relay episodes from their days at work and home (Chris has an unspecified office job and Clair, perhaps in a moment of overly heavy-handed symbolism, is a translator) — and then Crimp distorts his vision of the world by following up these anecdotes with a discomfitting existentialist surrealism.
The effect erodes both the distinction between truth and fiction, and the audience’s certainties, until it is not entirely clear what is really happening and what only belongs in the minds and words of his two lead roles.
Periphery characters are introduced and hover on a threshold between reality and fantasy. A neighbour comes to complain about the noise being made by Chris and Clair’s daughter playing in the garden and her grievances transform into a powerful, rather terrifying monologue discussing an unnamed war taking place somewhere abroad, in which her husband is involved in some capacity and which demands of its participants particularly brutal acts of violence — it is one of the play’s most interesting and shocking scenes. Later, in the final moments, the daughter herself emerges and plays a piano piece from behind a screen at the behest of her parents and Jenny, the neighbour – the women all wear the same pink jeans and appear to be morphing into one another; their identities somehow interchangeable.
The Tron’s Changing House theatre is a fantastic space for this production — dark and slightly claustrophobic — and director Andy Arnold, on typically excellent form, maintains tight formal control over his cast. Boyack and Simon enter the play standing unnaturally far apart; both upright and rigid, and Simon does not let go of a tightly-gripped briefcase for some time: between them they create a vaguely unnerving atmosphere from the very beginning, which is only fully articulated with the introduction of the surrounding cast.
This is a uniformly outstanding version of Crimp’s story, made so by Boyack’s icily brilliant performance and Simon’s pitifully spineless one.