December 01, 1997

Fiscal Violence


Shopping and Fucking

Mark Ravenhill

Out of Joint Company


Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

That old F word just goes on causing problems. Take the case of Mark Ravenhill’s very recent play Shopping and Fucking. A publicist’s nightmare, it has caused a flurry of asterisks and strategic figleaves. In Adelaide it received a self-imposed R rating. In New Zealand there were rumours it wouldn’t play at all.

On tour around the country the play has remained enmeshed in notoriety which, along with the egregious and apparently mandatory comparisons to Trainspotting and Pulp Fiction, certainly fueled enough curiosity to fill the Playhouse for the entire four night season. But that has also undoubtedly created its own problems as far as expectations are concerned.

Some people I spoke to expressed disappointment with the production, suggesting that it was rather tame and unconvincing. As if they thought they were in for some sort of ultra-grunge version of Caligula that was going to out-trainspot Irvine Welch and out-pulp Tarantino. Instead, aside from one graphically cruel simulation of anal sex, the play’s dramatic impact is in its abstracted psychological violence and the affectless commerce that passes for society. The sources for Shopping and Fucking are not so much the current crop of kitchen syringe dramas as Eliot’s Waste Land, Orton’s Mr Sloane and Harold Pinter’s Caretaker.

The narrative revolves around Mark a “recovering substance abuser” who lives with Robbie and Lulu. He meets up with Gary, a rent boy with whom, against his own best intentions, he becomes involved. At a job interview Lulu also meets Brian, apparently a businessman, for whom she and Robbie agree to deal ecstacy. But the story line is more like a William Burroughs cut-up. The play is a series of what Mark calls transactions. All emotional and social dealing is governed by money. Several times during the play the Shopping Story is told- of how Mark is in supermarket and he sees Robbie and Lulu. But they are owned by somebody else who says I don’t want them they are trash, I will sell them to you. And he buys them and takes them home. It is a bent version of the babes in the wood and at its centre is exploitation and abuse.

The play, which only opened at the Royal Court Upstairs in September last year, is distinguished by strong performances although I am uncertain about some of its hyperactive staging. Julian McGowan’s set is sparse with seventies-cruddy carpet and modular blocks for sitting. At the edge of the stage is TV set and as a backdrop is a neon piped stainless steel wall which lights up with semiotic key words – Life is a bitch, interview, home, meat, bed, you/me. Between the short, clipped scenes surges of loud techno pour through the stage speakers lending an initial urgency which gives way to predictability.

But Ravenhill’s text, with valuable assistance from director Max Stafford-Clark has been carefully crafted to create a spare but insinuating cadence. Characters speak in key phrases and almost poetic repetitions. It is like hearing Orton for the first time, or Pinter. The musicality of the diverse London and Scottish dialects is hypnotic and the ironies and inflections are full of menace and melancholy. When Robbie gets smashed and gives away three thousand quid’s worth of ecstacy -fook money let’s be beautiful !- it is both exhilarating and parodic. When Brian, the venial gangster businessman, tells the story of the Lion King as if it were the Iliad it is both darkly comic and preposterously honourable.

Lloyd Hutchinson is excellent as Mark, helpless in the opening scene but agent of a terrible contract by the play’s end. He provides a stillness against which the insecurities and traumas of Lulu and Robbie, played by Caroline Catz and Pearce Quigley, can be understood. As Gary, Russell Barr creates a memorably frightening portrait of a boy terminally damaged by family and the lethal predations of the street. The only thing more chilling than his grisly death wish is Mark’s willingness to fulfil it- for a price. Tony Guilfoyle as Brian,  brings the  Money is Civilisation, Civilisation is Money speech to a charismatic pitch, admirably maintaining the sardonic, mock-dignity that drives the satire in the play.

Shopping and Fucking is a nasty little parable of commodification. It is smart, grim and elegantly considered. The Out of Joint Company has taken Mark Ravenhill’s perceptive and disturbing play and created something close to verse drama. It is a far cry from the usual stage realism, despite its apparent similarities and it has a notably humanistic undercurrent. There is a mordant, sometime derisory tone here but it is not cynicism. We have known for some time that there is no such thing as free lunch but Shopping and Fucking reminds us that there is a karmic GST on the blue light specials as well.

The Adelaide Review, No.171, December, 1997, pp.34-5.

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