Philippe Minyana translated by Steve Waters
The final play in the Gate's "A Politick Death" season was also one of the National Theatre's Channel's France series during its Transformation season. Habitats addresses death from various oblique angles.
On arrival in the ultra-violet-lit, white painted space, one is greeted by two charming ladies who explain that one can promenade during or between the four sections. They then transform themselves into unbelievably cheery presenters of the prelude.
Three actors speak fifty different holiday snapshots in a piece reminiscent of the late Georges Perec, the master of the poetically inconsequential. The images are short and often amusing. The deadpan delivery of Joanna Croll, Christine King and especially the sardonic Jonathan Jones is perfect.
Habitats One is delivered by Richard Hansell. He plays a sales executive who sounds like football commentator John Motson as he purveys packaging. The thin veneer of a salesman's sincerity chips off at every turn. His oily delivery is convincing but frequently breaks down as he is interrogated by a disembodied voice. There is also an air of mystery as lies become apparent and one in particular is chillingly exposed. This is the kind of satirical humour that has made TV's Alan Partridge such a success.
Habitats Two shows an actress, played by Eileen Battye, delivering often Beckettian lines to two acolytes who seem to be writers or directors. She speaks beautifully but her words have little meaning. This applies whether they are from her script or her memories. Eventually she addresses the subject of death from both the collective, in Iraq, to the personal.
Habitats Three returns to the episodic and is like Perec once more. The saturnine Gerrard McArthur reads from what appears to be the scrapbook of a horrific murder committed by James Inwood. He killed his whole family having lived a lie from teenager to father. The language used is that of the media but the overall impact is quite devastating as the reports of the "infamous trial" add up.
Under Fiona Laird's direction, the performances are universally good. A picture builds of Minyana's odd, rather bleak view of society at the start of the third millennium. His overriding comment seems to be that everyone covers their lives with artifice and self-delusion which can ultimately lead to tragic destruction.
As a whole, Habitats has a very European feel with coherent meaning less of an aim than the production of a kind of elliptical poetry.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher