Dennis Kelly, Tony-winning bookwriter of the musical “Matilda,” is second only to Caryl Churchill as the U.K.’s most ambitious and iconoclastic dramatist. “The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas,” his startlingly idiosyncratic and often surprisingly funny new (im)morality play expertly helmed by new Royal Court a.d. Vicky Featherstone, is a long way from being a comfortable watch. But nor should it be, since it’s a caustic satire on contemporary greed.
From the start it’s clear that, in dramatic terms, we’re a long way from normal. Instead of character set-up being handled through standard expository scenes, the first part of the play consists of the seven-strong cast seated in a row facing the audience narrating the story from conception into the early adulthood of the eponymous character. Happily the storytelling is actually often laugh-aloud funny — sit-down comedy? — since Kelly and Featherstone are unafraid of framing the story of unseen, ordinary, kindly, hapless Gorge with highly knowing wit.
We’re repeatedly asked the key question about Gorge’s life choices: Are they the result of goodness or cowardice? That choice literally hangs over the entire play thanks to the words appearing in lights over Tom Scutt’s beautifully crisp settings, gliding into pace for the (mostly) duologue scenes that follow the lengthy initial set-up.
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Audiences are catapulted into a scene of ruthless corporate takeover with Gorge (Tom Brooke) caught between his well-meaning but trapped boss (nicely shambling but quietly precise Alan Williams) and deliciously vicious Pippa Haywood as a Mephistophelean businesswoman intent upon buying the company at a knockdown price and making a killing in, in turns out, both a literal and metaphorical sense.
In an extraordinarily taut exchange — Kelly’s constant whipping-up of tension, seemingly from nowhere, is masterly — Gorge is presented with a huge moral choice. The audience is held rapt as he stands on a knife-edge of decision: Will he or won’t he sell his boss down the river? The moment he takes the selfish decision, Kelly brings his chorus back to chart Gorge’s rocket-like ascendancy to billionaire wealth and limitless power.
Gorge’s Achilles heel, however, is his helpless love for damaged-yet-coping Louisa (Kate O’Flynn). And the more he chases her, the darker and more bitter the writing becomes.
Gorge’s manipulations turn ever more audacious, the emotional blackmail nastier and more complicated with Kelly’s narrators keeping audiences one step ahead of Gorge’s game.
After the stripped-down dramaturgy of the first half, the more drawn-out second proves more conventional in what proves to be not just a rise-and-moral-fall story, but society’s revenge. That’s shown via three epic confrontations with representatives of those who have suffered from Gorge’s supremely selfish success, including a long-lost brother (a beautifully quiet performance of distilled disgust from Jonathan McGuinness).
There’s little easy-to-love characterization, nor are there warm-hearted moments of redemption. Using narration for what would traditionally be subtext with the “meaning” placed so clearly on the surface is so high-risk that were the writing not so strong, the play could have been terrible. But the fierceness of Kelly’s imagery and the immediacy of his scenes force audiences to examine familiar questions of success and moral responsibility afresh.
Kelly, however, is also blessed by the adroit pacing and perfectly judged acting of Featherstone’s completely unified cast, led by a piercing Brooke as the Citizen Kane-like Gorge who, remarkably, appears ever more hollowed out by the lies he compulsively uses to achieve success. Swiftly jettisoning his initial status as a worried, lanky victim, the more powerful his character becomes, the more etiolated he appears.
A satirical, polemical drama that so starkly dismisses the accumulation of wealth in favor of truth and compassion was never going to suit all tastes, and it has divided local critics. Audiences in search of conventional stage argument will be unsatisfied. Yet anyone willing to embrace the authentic excitement of an individual voice matched by an ideal production are in for an fascinating, if bracing, ride.