Passion, urgency and a pervasive sense that a playwright has something to say atone for any number of sins in a new play. Such is the case with “Some Explicit Polaroids” by English playwright Mark Ravenhill (“Shopping and Fucking”), which has been given its U.S. premiere by the Massachusetts Intl. Festival of the Arts (MIFA) in its original production by London’s Out of Joint theater company. The play may be naive, obvious, a bit clumsy and even politically old-fashioned, but it still comes across as a powerful and universal, if profoundly sad, cry for love, friendship, companionship and fair play in an England (and world) that Ravenhill sees as terminally unhappy, fearful, angry, violent and tacky. It offers only a shred of optimism at its end.
Ravenhill, 34, wears his influences openly. They include “Look Back in Anger,” the gritty, working-class theater of Joan Littlewood and “Angels in America.”
But he also has a voice of his own, even if he does rely too much on the signature word “fucking.” It’s the second word heard in “Some Explicit Polaroids,” and it’s generously sprinkled throughout.
This black comedy-tragedy concerns the utter disillusionment of Nick (Ian Redford), a former political terrorist who has just been released from prison, where he’s been incarcerated since 1984 for stabbing a wealthy upper-class capitalist (the play and its characters talk of capital-ism, arms dealers, dictators, socialism, et al).
He immediately makes for the flat of his ex-girlfriend and co-terrorist Helen (Tricia Kelly), who has reformed and is now a local council-woman with aspirations to run for MP.
The younger English generation is represented by promiscuous Nadia (Lise Stevenson) and gay Tim (Russell Barr), who has AIDS, an al-most impenetrable regional accent and a German boyfriend Victor (Matthew Wait) he has literally bought as a sex-slave.
Nadia and Victor are exotic go-go dancers, and she is regularly beaten up by one of her boyfriends. All three are desperately trying to convince themselves that they are happy while clearly being deeply lost.
The play’s sixth character is Jonathan (Brian Protheroe), the capitalist Nick attacked. He appears as a sort of avenging angel, or at least the embodiment of the other characters’ consciences. It’s actually possible to empathize, even sympathize, with Ravenhill’s characters and with his clearly evident concern for England and its victims of capitalism gone awry.
Ravenhill continues to push the envelope where taste is concerned. “Some Explicit Polaroids” lives up to its title by offering a scene of simulated cunnilingus and an explicit scene between Victor and the dead body of Tim.
Somehow Ravenhill, his fervent cast and his no-nonsense director Max Stafford-Clark make these scenes integral and perfectly acceptable elements of a play that, warts and all, must be given credit for its lack of pretension.
The play’s sensibilities and accents may leave some American theatergoers in the dark. But “Some Explicit Polaroids” does have a sense of universal goodfellowship.
The four performances for MIFA were the Out of Joint production’s only U.S. dates. It’s now up to some adventurous U.S. theater company to test its audiences with “Some Explicit Polaroids.”