We can’t say we weren’t warned. As best I remember it (I have tried hard to expunge it from the memory altogether), Wallace Shawn’s play The Designated Mourner, performed in this same theatre (then the Cottesloe) in 1996, consisted of several distinguished theatrical figures sitting in a line and talking directly to the audience. That set expectations for this new work, getting its World Premier, pretty low, but it still fails to live up to them. The opening sets the tone, with an anonymous figure strolling on stage as if to tell us to turn off our mobile phones and then launching into a turgid scene-setting monologue. Anyone in the audience who has stayed awake then sees various other figures emerge from darkness, apparently theatricals gathered to remember a play that had flopped ten years earlier. We are told that we are in an age when people no longer go to the theatre, so some time in the future we presume, possibly after a period during which theatres had been swamped with Shawn’s plays. It is a dystopian future in which actors and television personalities are targeted and terminated once they have passed the peak of their popularity. A satire on the modern culture of quickly disposable celebrities, Shawn has the germ of a good idea for a play – that is a real play in which things actually happen to the characters on stage and not this one in which other people just stand around talking about them. Talk, talk and then more talk is all we get in Ian Rickson’s static production. Shawn himself appears as a targeted old ham, showing facial bruises from a narrow escape; thankfully, these bruises are just make up and not the consequences of an adverse audience reaction to the performance on the previous evening. Other accomplished actors, deploying a variety of American and English accents, appear, but it is better to leave them nameless out of respect. The National has had a brilliant year in the Dorfman, but all good things come to an end.
Performance date: 24 November 2015