Theater director stages shorts for 'iPod generation'

LONDON — Even in a town increasingly dominated by unconventional theater events, Mark Ravenhill’s play cycle “Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat” stands out as dizzyingly high concept.

Recent hits like Punchdrunk’s environmental “Masque of the Red Death” or Kneehigh’s genre-bending “Brief Encounter” seem almost routine when compared with this sprawling project to stage 16 short plays about the contemporary experience of war.

The cycle was presented over three weeks (April 3-20) by some of London’s most prestigious theater organizations — including the National, Royal Court, Gate and Paines Plough. Ravenhill calls them plays “for the iPod generation,” and spectators got to attend them in whatever quantity or order they pleased.

As a feat of production and of “eventing,” “Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat” was doubtless a triumph, but one that failed to reward the frequent return visitor (such as this reviewer, who saw them all). The more the plays stacked up, the more circular and self-defeating their message became.

The plays were initially performed last August in the Edinburgh Fringe as early-morning readings under the heading “Ravenhill for Breakfast.” The brainchild of Royal Court artistic director Dominic Cooke, the London presentation was programmed around participating theaters’ existing slates, so start times were frequently unusual: Auds loitered in the National’s lobby before 10 a.m. on a Saturday or wandered the streets of Notting Hill after dark, following a man wearing angel’s wings.

The best plays confirmed Ravenhill’s reputation as an acute observer of the contemporary zeitgeist — the title “Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat,” for example, while seemingly obscure, refers to what some computer game designers have identified as the basic contemporary life cycle — and a superb writer of dialogue.

In “The Mikado” (all titles were taken from existing works), a man (Philip Voss) reveals to his lover (David Bamber) that his cancer has returned and that he is consumed with rage, with war used as a metaphor for the character’s inner conflict.

In the monologue “Intolerance,” Harriet Walter offered a comedic tour de force as a woman whose obsession with her allergies suggests her self-absorption and the limitations of her worldview. (She reveals herself as a casual anti-Semite.)

Equally excellent, and approaching the theme of war more directly, were two plays directed by Cooke in atmospheric corners of the Royal Court’s bar/restaurant. In “Fear and Misery,” an affluent couple (Joanna Riding, Joseph Millson) eat dinner and argue about the pressures on their lives while listening to the sound of their coddled son Alex’s breathing on a baby monitor. Unseen by them, a bloody soldier (Burn Gorman) creeps past and into their son’s room.

“War and Peace” then stages the confrontation between the soldier and 7-year-old Alex (the extraordinary Lewis Lempereur-Palmer). It is kept woozily unclear whether we are inhabiting one of Alex’s recurring nightmares; the larger point is the social conflicts the characters embody (“This place, gated community, hedge funds — that’s over unless I’m fighting the fighting. You see?” barks the soldier).

Whenever Ravenhill left the realm of the personal and attempted to dramatize grounded politics, however, he lost control of any sense of focused critique. Over and over, we were confronted with ludicrously ignorant, insensitive Westerners doing hideous violence to inhabitants of occupied countries; it was hard to escape the impression that the author of “Shopping and Fucking” was indulging a tendency to shock for its own sake.

A central problem was the frequent use of direct audience address, a choice that skewed any political message into alienating bombast.

“Birth of a Nation,” for example, casts the audience as residents of an occupied country being talked down to by four Western artists on a “healing” mission.

But while an audience dominated by arts insiders guffawed at the fictional artists’ obvious self-indulgence, there was a sense of being caught in a lefty-liberal hall of mirrors.

If this project had truly followed through with its espoused politics, the voices heard would not have been Ravenhill’s but those of the inhabitants of countries whose occupation he was attempting to criticize.

That would have been a unique event in London theater, but one the media would doubtless have found far less sexy than “Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat.”

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