Ouisa: "I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names ."
David Guare’s play famously put this social theory into common currency when it premiered in New York in 1990. However the fall of Apartheid and the rise of the internet have rendered aspects of the play as dated as Ben Jonson’s 17th-century yarn about fraudsters and identity, Volpone. Strictly speaking, Google, Wikipedia and Facebook have made a crucial plot point impossible. So why this revival now, almost 18 years since the original London production?
Perhaps the dated elements are a red herring. As we are forced to suspend disbelief in the story, the Old Vic's handsome, slick production throws new emphasis on the thrilling ambiguities of those six mythical degrees: the play explores the gaps between connection and separation and between ideals and reality on a number of levels, teasing out ironies and mocking the characters' pretensions. It really does inspire thought, but is light, swift and witty on its feet - fluently directed by David Grindley, with some superb ensemble acting from the cast.
In particular, Obi Abili is magnificent as Paul, making a compelling Pygmalion-style transformation (in flashback) from street hustler to Harvard preppy ‘son’ of Sidney Poitier. He inveigles himself into the privileged home of Ouisa and Flan Kittredge, seducing them with his apparent glamorous connection to the legendary Sidney - until bringing home a street hustler for sex causes his expulsion. Lesley Manville makes Ouisa Kittredge's growing sympathy for Paul and disillusion with her marriage very affecting. Anthony Head's Flan Kittredge is a study in self-delusion: his ambitious art dealer is as big a spiv as Paul, with just greater leverage, social status and a few more zeros on the end of his bank balance. Both Manville and Head adeptly suggest the depths of bad faith lurking beneath the highly polished social veneer.
The play is almost cursed by its most famous line and title. Ultimately, it is not about a facile social theory - it repeatedly throws up cultural artifacts and ideas to suggest how ‘knowledge’ can be a separation in itself. The ultimate loss into the void of Paul's charm, energy and potential is tragic. This Old Vic production is a convincing argument for the play's continued relevance.
By Edward Clarke
Running until 3 April 2010. Tickets and info www.oldvictheatre.com