80s revival in the marketplace

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 06.12.2019

Doll’s houses, toy cars and a functioning model railway form part of the set of the Théâtre des Capucins’s English-language production of Dealing with Clair by Martin Crimp. Behind this miniature suburbia, steel-and-glass structures rise to the top of the stage area, which is frequently bathed in purple light. If you didn’t know better, you might think you’d walked into a music video shooting for some 80s pop icon. The MTV look isn’t for nothing, though, as director Anne Simon plunges the audience into a world of garish colours and sleek surfaces that barely camouflage the sinister motives lurking beneath. “Greed,” one almost hears Gordon Gekko whispering offstage, “greed is good.”

Martin Crimp’s Dealing with Clair, first staged in 1988, embodies and satirizes Thatcherism during the years of the so-called Lawson boom, when house prices in the UK rose exorbitantly (soon to be followed by the inevitable bust). In the play, a young couple, Mike and Liz, plan to sell their home and move up the property ladder. At first, they want to deal plainly and accept the first offer at their asking price. However, after James, a mysterious buyer with seemingly limitless pockets, steps in, much double-dealing takes place and things go awry. The clearest victim of the unfolding net of intrigues is Clair, the estate agent, who goes missing mid-way through the plot.

Parallels between Crimp’s vision of 1980s Britain and the current situation in Luxembourg appear so obvious that no amount of blue eyeshadow could conceal them. Rather than updating the play with a contemporary setting, Simon has decided to overdo a historicizing approach, presenting not some faithful period piece but a phantasmagoria of 80s references. Nowadays much belittled for its fashion fads, on the stage of the Théâtre des Capucins, the decade is back with a vengeance. Yet, along with the roll-necks and shoulder pads, rampant individualism and an obsession with accumulating wealth are celebrating a comeback, too.

Set and costume designer Clio Van Aerde and makeup artist Joël Seiller are the secret stars of the evening. Elisabet Johannesdottir’s Liz, in particular, gains much from her Thatcherite hairdo and her series of outfits culled straight from the Iron Lady’s wardrobe. Raoul Schlechter’s Mike looks like Miami Vice’s Don Johnson transplanted into a grey Outer London borough, while Whitney Fortmueller’s Clair wears inconspicuous pastel business attire and Jules Werner’s James sports suave albeit mismatched clothes that mark him out as the vulgar big mouth that he is. For about one and half hours, these characters walk around on artificial grass mats and tiny roads, peeking into and lifting the roofs off the miniature villas they are surrounded by. Real estate as playground for the (would-be) rich – the concept may be simple, but it works.

What doesn’t work so well is the Dealing with Clair’s overall structure. The play shows how the middle classes have no qualms about leaving their morals behind when offered more and more money, how the booming property market is concomitant with a downwards sliding scale of social values. Yet, in Anne Simon’s mise en scène, one finds little development and many lacklustre scenes. There is hardly any tension in this production where every major character is dislikeable right from the moment they enter the stage (with the exception of Clair, a mere plaything of the others throughout). The twists and turns are left to secondary characters such as the investigator (Matthew Brown) – present even before Clair has disappeared – and Anna (Hana Sofia Lopes), Mike and Liz’s supposedly Italian nanny.

A major change of set towards the end, involving a darkened stage and a search party rummaging through the auditorium, cannot disguise the fact the performance isn’t going anywhere and has already made its point early on. What follows is an anticlimactic and largely superfluous coda. The lack of vibrancy and flow is exacerbated by a couple of weak performances. The women – icy Johannesdottir, prim Fortmueller and devious Lopes – fare well, and Werner’s Bullingdon-style chauvinism has its moments, yet Schlechter’s constant bumbling buffoonery is a let-down. Both men are outplayed by Brown, who plays several smaller parts. Like the MTV aesthetic it emulates, this version of Dealing with Clair works best in short bursts. There is a plethora of things to see and impressions to take in within five minutes, yet extended over the course of an evening, the show grows stale.

Dealing with Clair, by Martin Crimp, directed by Anne Simon; with Raoul Schlechter, Elisabet Johannesdottir, Whitney Fortmueller, Jules Werner, Hana Sofia Lopes and Matthew Brown. Premiered on November 26. Final performance on December 7, 8pm. Théâtre des Capucins.

Jeff Thoss
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