An Experience We Don’t Want To End

Brighton Festival presents - The Gabriels Trilogy: Election Year in the Life of One Family - Hungry, What Did You Expect?, Women Of A Certain Age. Written and Directed by Richard Nelson, with Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Amy Warren, a Public Theater Production, Attenborough Centre of Creative Arts, Tuesday, 23rd May, Wednesday 24th May & Thursday 25th May, 8pm

It’s that old Faustian bargain: either you have community or you have money. You can’t have both. But what if you have neither? Then you’re really in trouble.

And then there’s culture, capital cee and small cee, contriving to have a foot in both camps, community and money, making all sorts of compromises and accommodations, but still, God help those who have no part of community, money or culture. Are there such people? Is that possible? Do we have culture as a default? Whatever we are, is that culture? With a small cee?

And what about culture, capital cee, that weird conspiracy, out there somewhere, that says Picasso and Modigliani and Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Gustav Klimt are simply the best? What kind of madness is this? We can’t agree on climate change but, counter-intuitively, it is proclaimed and approved, from on high, if you want to park your money somewhere then Culture is the place to be. If you’ve got ‘em, smoke ‘em. As for Faustian bargains, there are artists, naming no names though one is currently appearing on a handbag and one is exhibiting fake antiquities in Venice, who have decided it’s better to be famous for being rich (or rich for being famous) than for being honest.

The flip-side of artist as shameless self-promotor (and that really isn’t going to work without a generous dash of fun, an instinct to enthral) is artist as secular saint, which calls for a completely different kind of entertainment value.

This trilogy of plays (I’ve now seen all three) about which there is much to love, but whatever the echoes of Chekhov and David Storey and Stoppard et al, the whole back catalogue of gentle theatre for the comfortable and well off, they are, in fact, real shockers, theatre as horror. They take a scalpel to something fundamental, something almost too deep and dangerous to name and eviscerate, detail by detail, the whole idea of the dead genius, the artist as saviour, as moral hero, as someone uniquely special.

It’s a kind of a miracle though, in it’s own way, a theatrical miracle, that what appears so calm, so civilised, so domestic, can conceal such a horrifyingly violent idea, an attack on goodness.

The first hint of trouble comes at the end of the first play, Hunger, when the extended family has come together on the occasion of the spreading of the ashes of the recently deceased son, brother, husband, ex-husband, Thomas Gabriel, reasonably successful playwright, loved and admired (apparently) by all. Ritual performed, they repair to the family home to share a meal. The play takes place during the preparation and cooking (there’s a working cooker, sink, fridge) of this meal, which the family exit to consume, marking the end of the action.

As they are starting to leave, to take the food, plates, utensils into the dining room from the kitchen, one character, the sister-in-law, observes to her husband, Thomas’s brother, that Thomas’s widow is angry, in fact has confided in her earlier, that she is overcome, at times, by an inchoate rage at Thomas, and the reasons for this aren’t clear.

The second play, What Did You Expect?, picks up where the first left off, though the time has moved forward some months. (A nice conceit is that Hunger is set on the day of Super Tuesday, 2016, one of the milestones of the selection process of Presidential Candidates, and the second during the election campaign, the third on the evening of the election.) Thomas’s family find it odd that his widow has welcomed his first wife, who initially came to the ashes ceremony but, despite always intending to leave, stays while dinner is prepared, stays for dinner and begins to make preparations to stay the night. In the second play she has moved in, as a paying tenant, and is helping to sort through Thomas’s notebooks, books, what have you.

Alive, Thomas was, for his wife, someone whom she loved. Dead, she is now the guardian of his legacy, a legacy which doesn't just belong to her. But she’s a doctor and knows nothing about the theatre, and isn’t an expert on the rarified cultural atmosphere in which Thomas seems to have moved. Hence her acquiescence when his first wife, a onetime actress now teacher, comes to help organise and categorise. And there’s something in this strange process of canonisation that confuses, distresses and enrages her, despite clinging desperately to her domestic rituals and routines.

By the third play, it isn’t so much anger or rage, but exclusion that defines the characters. A sense that their place in a world is becoming more and more incomprehensible and out of reach. The family home is being sold, their mother has had a stroke and, as she can no longer afford care, will have to move in with her son and his wife.

Mary, Thomas’s widow, at the end of the play, imagines she hears Thomas playing the piano, a piano which has already been sold and taken away. She is becoming excluded from culture, just as surely as she is losing touch with Thomas, as not only is this election night, it’s the anniversary of his death. She has let her Physician’s licence lapse and cannot now manage the exams to have it re-instated. The family, so recently relatively prosperous, are sinking, losing touch with that which gives life meaning, which connects them to the mainstream.

Culture as a moral imperative no longer delivers. Art doesn’t uplift, it is the luxury item displayed behind glass. It is a promise made to someone else. The Liberal idea that things can only get better is hollow. Things are slipping out of our hands.

Throughout the plays there are images, anecdotes, stories which reflect or comment, unobtrusively on the action. For example, at the beginning of the second play, Thomas’s ex-wife has discovered, in a notebook a short play by another writer which Thomas has translated. The play concerns two old men, outside a house, looking in through the windows where they can see the family, going about their life. The two men are discussing how best to break the news to the family that their daughter has died. But they debate for so long we, the audience, can see, in dumb show, the family learning the tragic news and receiving into their home the coffin containing their daughter.

This sums up our experience of watching these plays: seductive, entertaining, enjoyable, an experience we don’t want to end, and yet heartbreaking.

And one character tells a joke: a girl is going out with a boy who works at the NSA, the agency that taps communications. But he never says anything. ‘Aren’t you bored,’ her friend asks? ‘But he listens,’ the girl says.

Perhaps that's the secret of this production, the actors listen to each other with an intensity that is real and heartfelt.

Paul Corcoran