If the usual festive offerings are not for you, the Royal Court Theatre has carved out a reputation in recent years for offering something just a little bit different. To say this year is no exception would be an understatement.
While Martin Crimp’s new fittingly intriguingly named play In The Republic Of Happiness may open with a family sitting round their Christmas lunch, turkey carved and paper hats atop their heads, this is where any conventional Yuletide occurrences stop. And stop they do in the spikiest, most vicious and bizarre way.
Split into three parts, this two hour trip is likely to divide opinion but with Crimp’s ferocious word play, frank songs and a committed cast including a scene stealing Michelle Terry, whatever you think, you’re unlikely to ever be bored.
The Christmas lunch opening leads the relatively conventional first part. As the six family members across three generations, from a pregnant teenager to a pornography loving Grandfather, eat their feast and engage in tense conversation, the arrival of Uncle Bob –a shudder inducingly sinister Paul Ready – and his venom filled wife Madeleine signals a journey into the dark side, where talk of biting, aborting and snuffing out human life is as common as asking for someone to pass the gravy.
Just when you think you can’t take much more of Terry’s distasteful sociopathic Madeleine or Ellie Kendrick’s spoilt, provocative Hazel, the set suddenly lifts, the cast step forward, smile sweetly and take their places for the second half, now a cult-like panel ready to tell us The Five Essential Freedoms Of The Individual. The cast talk over one another, repeat each other’s sentences and gaze at the audience as they embark on a narcissistic group therapy session to talk about their traumas, hatred towards partner’s cats and belief in their own unique gifts as they look sanctimoniously down at us from their privileged pedestals.
Then it all disappears. Leaving in its place a dream-like vision – my guess is purgatory – for the third ambiguous part and the show’s equally ambiguous conclusion. Finally we have reached the Republic of Happiness, but now we find Bob anxious and unsure as he prepares to address gathered subjects and sing the song of happiness, while Madeleine once again radiates confidence and a grotesque thirst for control.
Crimp’s characters time and again claim that none of their opinions or actions are political, but, of course, this is a very political play. Capitalism is pulled apart, revealing a greedy, destructive core, and humanity is shown up for its every selfish, hideous quality. But, as loopy, surreal and trajectory as the experience is – did I mention the cast frequently pick up microphones and break into explicit songs? – it’s an enjoyable ride, witty and thought-provoking and, if you haven’t already worked it out, utterly different.