"It has to make sense, Robbie — don't you see how important that is? There have to be rules." So says one character to another in the final scene of Martin Crimp's new play at the Royal Court, In the Republic of Happiness. The throw-away line is perhaps an ironic commentary on a work that seems to revel in making no sense, in breaking rules both social and formal.
Take form first. The play starts out as a straight-forward social satire of the kind Royal Court regulars will be used to from wickedly funny productions like In Basildon and Clybourne Park — both also staged by the theatre's outgoing artistic director Dominic Cooke. But it soon turns into something far more surreal and, sadly, more tedious. By the second part the plot has disappeared and there are no characters, just a company of actors sitting in a line addressing the same thoughts over and over again to the audience in a kind of agonisingly protracted jazz riff. The third part reintroduces two of the characters, but their circular dialogue is even harder to follow than the jazz riff.
As for social rules, the opening scene cuts through the usual niceties of human interaction and replaces them with a kind of comically cruel honesty. Three generations of a family sit around a dining table for Christmas dinner, only to dissect the daughter’s teenage pregnancy and the grandfather’s dementia. An unloved uncle arrives to tell everyone how much his wife hates them all. Crimp then swivels the sawn-off shotgun of his satire to the individuals' illusions of freedom, profundity, individuality and – in the final part — happiness.
There is a little light relief in the form of songs, which, after the opening scene’s flirtation with realism, are delivered karaoke-style to the audience. These were easier on the ear and mind than the spoken lines, probably because the music provided a sense of structure that made the absence of a plot easier to deal with. It's a tantalizing reminder of why George Benjamin's opera Written on Skin, for which Crimp wrote the libretto, is rapidly gaining a reputation as a modern classic after its premiere at the Aix-en-Provence festival this summer.
Back at the Royal Court, Crimp’s decision to ditch the conventions of narrative and dialogue is presumably part of the satire. It underlines the vanity of our efforts to pin a plotline onto our lives, the failure of our attempts to communicate with each other. But it also makes for very undramatic theatre. The result is thought-numbing rather than thought-provoking, which is surely a major failing in a satire. One only for die-hard fans of experimental dramaturgy – or passionate haters of Christmas cheer.
In the Republic of Happiness runs at The Royal Court Theatre till 19 January 2013.