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A CurtainUp London London Review
The City

When I was young . . . . and before I began to make my living from translation — taking refuge in it . . . "the way an alcoholic takes refuge in alcoholism".— Chris reading Clair's words
The City
Benedict Cumberbatch as Chris and Hattie Morahan as Clair
(Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)
Martin Crimp's latest play The City gets a stylish production at the Royal Court with Katie Mitchell directing. It is a play which will stimulate discussion because of its confusing and often mystifying themes.

In the opening scene, Chris (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his wife Clair (Hattie Morahan) discuss their day in parallel, neither really listening to the other but rehearsing what they will have to say next. Clair has met a man at a railway station and has a tale to tell about the man handing over his daughter to his sister in law and while he goes to buy his daughter a present, they leave and he doesn't have the opportunity to say goodbye properly. Chris is concerned about his job security. His swipe card has been rejected when he tried to enter the office building.

Later in the play we meet the nurse Jenny (Amanda Hale) who has come to complain about the noise that Chris and Clair's children make during the day but who keeps going off at a tangent and explaining all sorts of irrelevancies in mind numbing, curious detail . Jenny, who seems distant and maybe disturbed, is succeeded by a little girl who wears a miniature version of Jenny's clothes in an uncanny and strange echo of the adult who seems incomplete and sinister. Chris having lost his job, becomes a white trilby hatted butcher, incongruous employment which he is the only one to celebrate.

The explanation for these events are that they are the workings of a writer and her imagination which, when Chris reads something Clair has written, tells us should be like a city inside of her," an inexhaustible source of characters and stories for her writing." Clair has explored this city and found that it has been destroyed, the buildings have turned to dust and the people no longer exist. It is this metaphoric description of a terrible writer's block, one which can never be lifted, that Crimp has unfolded. It is the most scary event that could befall any writer. We were told earlier in the play that Clair was a translator and Chris was encouraging her to write something of her own and her starting point seems to be the incident with the little girl.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan are excellent as the couple whose life is starting to disconnect. Cumberbatch as Chris has that wide eyed innocence as he seemingly becomes more distant. Hattie Morahan throws herself into her work as a translator. Her interest in Mohamed, the writer she met at the station and goes to Lisbon with for a conference, buoys her up. What she seems to be doing is finding herself an alternative life to the one with Chris. Amanda Hale has a very difficult part as the rather weird or maybe incomplete character Jenny. The fact that she also appears as a child expresses this immaturity or incompleteness.

Beautifully designed, the modern set with small glass windows in each wall uses lighting shifts to change the colour of the set but it feels comfortable and a pleasant environment. When the set switches to the garden, three square metres of turf are incongruously placed on the shiny floor and the scene becomes awkward, the grass clumsy. Each scene change has a kind of noisy curtain down as we enter a new piece of creative writing, a new scene.

Crimp's play unsettles and disturbs. I'm not sure my take is correct but I sense that what he is interested in is to stimulate ideas not to hammer points home.

The City
Written by Martin Crimp
Directed by Katie Mitchell

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Hattie Morahan
With: Amanda Hale, Matilda Castrey, Ruby Douglas
Design: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting: Paul Constable
Sound: Gareth Fry
Running time: One hour twenty minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 7th June 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 3rd May 2008 performance at The Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1 (Tube: Sloane Square)
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