A bad play built on bad politics
Dennis Kelly’s new play The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas is as shallow as the anti-capitalism which inspires it.
We are living, I am told, in the age of ‘capitalist realism’: a phrase which, as the cultural theorist Mark Fisher deploys it, seeks to explain the all-pervasive cynicism which seems to permeate our culture today. It is the acceptance, post-Soviet Union, that a certain brand of free-market capitalism has defeated its political opposition, combined with the absence of any real hope of positive social change. It’s because we’re all fed up, we’re all going through the motions and, ultimately, we know we’re all doomed.
It is seemingly a political critique which speaks powerfully to playwright Dennis Kelly, whose new play, The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, opened Vicky Featherstone’s reign as creative director of the Royal Court theatre this week. Kelly’s play seeks to update Henrik Ibsen’s social satire Peer Gynt for that most cynical group of all, the Generation X-ers, who came of age during the End of History only to watch it all come undone post-crisis. In that regard, he has surely triumphed in creating a work which leaves you with a sense of soul-sapping pointlessness and with no obvious route out. Sadly, it’s one of the few achievements in what is a trying, and desperately uneven, production.
It’s a shame. Kelly has some real promise as a writer, having produced the witty sitcom Pulling and Channel 4’s unnerving comic book drama Utopia earlier this year, and possesses a sharp comedic eye. The cast is high-quality too: Tom Brooke, Pippa Haywood, Jonathan McGuinness, Joshua James and Alan Williams all give strong performances.
Yet it all goes horribly wrong after a strong – if lengthy – opening act where the cast, seated on stools, give a detailed and often very funny David Copperfield-style account of our hero’s life from conception to the age of 26. There, after a disastrous end to a happy relationship, Gorge makes a Faustian pact with a boardroom shark to screw over his boss, drop his loser status and enjoy a cut-throat rise to the top of the business world. So far, so Wall Street.
From there, however, the wheels come off. Gorge falls in love with an employee and seduces her through creating an elaborate deception around an abusive childhood. Having won her over, he writes a James Frey-esque hit memoir about his faked abuse before he is exposed and loses everything except his fortune.
It all sounds perfectly promising on paper, not least in its riff on how the loathed business magnate can win public affection through absorbing the language of therapy and assuming the position of ultimate, unquestioned victimhood. Brooke plays Gorge perfectly – a mixture of callous ambition and nerdy everyman – as a figure drawn from Jon Ronson’s hit book of pop-psychology, The Psychopath Test, which concludes that the medical profession could easily diagnose many high-achievers as dangerous criminals in other social circumstances. Ibsen’s controversial satire took equal pot-shots at faddy science and the spiritual malaise brought about through the upheavals of the nineteenth century.
Sadly, after nearly three draining hours, you realise that Kelly is not very much interested in satirising or analysing these ideas. Instead, he shrilly and improbably amps up Gorge’s villainy at every turn, bizarrely throwing in some Faust and Citizen Kane, until the plot reaches an Ubu Roi-style incoherence. By the end, Kelly seems to have decided his greatest crime – apart from being rich and not very nice – is to have ignored a daughter who he’d been told was miscarried after a one-night stand, which hardly seems the greatest moral crime.
Perhaps Kelly is trying to make a point about the sheer unfairness of it all: as one character sneers at Gorge at the end, ‘it’s all so pointless and wrong’. However, it’s not a particularly original point and it’s not made incisively. While Kelly’s depiction of a cartoonish corporate villain may wash in the comic book atmospherics of Utopia, it simply doesn’t transfer to the starkness of the stage.
This is a smug and meanly cynical play, which fails to make you care enough about its lead to rouse any moral indignation over his acts, or any satisfaction over what is his seeming downfall. The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas may be the product of capitalist-realist times but, in simply depicting capitalists as big bad meanies, it’s a cure which is far worse than the disease.
David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.
The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas is at the Royal Court until 19 October.
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