(Written for Culture Wars)
There’s a thing I’ve just made up called ‘The Posh Lady Royal Court Gasp’. Writers on commission at the Royal Court are contractually obliged to include moments within their scripts that will provoke this elusive noise. (Please bear in mind, this is a different noise from ‘The Posh Lady Reads a Particularly Saucy Bit of a Jackie Collins Novel Gasp’.)
I mention this, not only because Tom Murphy’s Alice Trilogy provides a corker of such a moment – the sudden tension of the gasp tonight made every pearl round every neck of every Posh Lady in the audience quiver in unison – but also because the play concerns itself with the conversion of the eponymous Alice from a young dreamer into a weary, defeated, yet sympathetic, woman, who I imagine would gasp at things in the Royal Court.
Alice Trilogy is unsurprisingly three connected short plays about Alice, a grudgingly self-professed ‘boring housewife’. We meet her at twenty five, married to the uninspiring bank manager and budgie-breeder Bill, already with three kids, teetering on the edge of alcoholism, toying with escape, perhaps suicide, and conversing with voices in her head. We then see her encounter, some ten years later, with an old flame, a TV newsreader, and then again, ten years after that, as a defeated woman, sitting awkwardly eating dinner with her husband in an airport. The play chronicles the squeezing of all hope from Alice. She begins with ideas of escape from her mundane housewife existence, sees her ideas of a more glamorous life with a man from her past crushed because, well, he’s deeply sinister, and ends hollow-cheeked and bony with age and sadness, all the fight sucked out of her, sympathetic but irredeemable.
In the quotation I guess they would put in the Royal Court programme if they wanted to encapsulate why we should invest in the character, Alice says ‘There’s a strange, savage, beautiful and mysterious country inside me’. That’s at the beginning of the play. At the end, this is coupled with ‘There was a time when she felt that inside her there was something mysterious that she thought of as herself […] It is conceivable that the worst has happened and the reality of it leaves a lot to be desired’. That’s the journey. Perhaps I’m being a little unfair; Murphy sprinkles the journey with a lot of humour – that humour through bleakness that Irish playwrights are rightly renowned for – and the subtlety and juxtaposition of this raises the game of the play.
Or rather ‘plays’, as Murphy takes the trilogy aspect of the play rather seriously. Play one, ‘In The Apiary’, is a stuttery exercise in self-reflection, Alice conversing with a character waggishly named ‘Al’ in her attic, getting drunk and wondering where it all went wrong. Play two, ‘By The Gasworks Wall’, is a noirish, sinister conversation piece, complete with mysterious drifters and men in trilbies emerging from the shadows. Play three, ‘At The Airport’, is Happy Days-in-an-airport, as Alice’s increasingly fractured thought processes cascade out of her mouth, and her situation is worsened by dramatic events and increasing solitude. There’s a stylistic jump between each playlet, which causes a question of cohesion. What does this all add up to?
Juliet Stevenson’s performance in is, of course, staggeringly good. She has the ability to underplay moments in a mesmerising way – stuttering; implying; her brain racing, her eyes flashing mania, whilst remaining physically calm; subtext being thrown around like rice at a wedding. She does ‘rabbit in the headlights’ better than anyone I’ve seen on stage, and may well be in possession of the greatest ‘manic laugh in the throes of desperate misery’ in history. She works her socks off through this play, and at the curtain call looks positively frazzled with the exertion of it all. It is fascinating, and rare, to see someone being so effortlessly spectacular on a stage so close to you.
Why, then, is this a less than spectacular evening? Perhaps because the splintered glance at Alice’s life makes such leaps over vital history that one is only just keying into Alice’s predicament when it changes into a newer one, further entrenched in her desperate marital situation. Perhaps the play suffers through comparison to A Doll’s House, with the opening episode’s birdcage allusions and attic/coop set, and the fact that Stevenson played Nora in a definitive televised production of Ibsen’s play, which ratcheted up the focus and claustrophobia that the larger timescale of Alice Trilogy lacks. The episodic structure aims for epic sweep, but instead suggests slightness, and this is a shame. Perhaps it is that the play’s structure, despite being split into three, adheres to ‘Royal Court Gasp’ syndrome, throwing in unexpected horror exactly where one would expect it.
Alice Trilogy emerges as a piece of theatre only a madman would turn down a ticket to, yet one that the madman might well come out of a little disappointed. Madmen are, of course, notoriously difficult audience members. It’s a chilly play, not just because of the Royal Court’s overzealous air conditioning, but because our involvement with Alice is sketchy, skittish and fleeting. It’s awkward to relate to her, rather than uncomfortable; like someone cautiously trying to tell you her life story without giving any of her secrets away.