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The Country

Martin Crimp
Iceni Productions
Arcola Theatre
(2010)

"That taste of nothing is perhaps something you can taste," says country GP Richard who, with his wife Corinne and their children, has left the city for rural peace and quiet - and one strongly suspects to get away from something. Deciphering some of Crimp's plays is sometimes like trying to identify that taste when there seems to be nothing there, a sort of who-dun-it for a sophisticated post-modern audience busy identifying clues, but unlike Agatha Christie, he leaves out the dénouement; there is no neat tying up the ends in the final scene, no identifying the culprits (or, in this case, what they have done).

There are certainly lots of clues in The Country and for the ninety minutes of its single act there is a continual readjustment of possibilities as you assess the lies, the half-truths and the justifications and interpret the significances of the sometimes seemingly symbolic elements of the script and Amelia Nicholson's intense in-the-round production.

Anna Bliss Scully's design and Richard Williamson's lighting neatly encapsulate the situation of both audience and characters. The set is a multi-layered floor surface, the edges of each layer broken away to show another one beneath, around the seating is a path littered with fallen leaves and between scenes when they become illuminated a ring of trees encircles the theatre space: clearly there are layers to peel away and beware - 'you can't see the wood for the trees.' The text describes the doctor's home as large and comfortable but the only furniture is a severe bench, a hard wooden upright chair and two small angular wooden tables, all as uncomfortable as the couple's relationship. Lighting, specified in the opening dialogue as low, tends to dimness, the impression stronger because it shines into the eyes of the front rows of the audience - this isn't a show to doze at; you have got to look hard at what you are offered.

On the surface the dialogue is banally natural, though clearly this is a marriage with problems, but what are these references to needles? There is a bizarre recurrent exchange of Corinne asking Richard to kiss her and, after a beat, being told 'I have.' What is the significance of an arm-chair-shaped stone on the hillside that both Corinne and an American girl whom Richard has brought home have discovered? Or is it in fact significant at all?

Simon Thorpe's Richard seems a nice guy: he remembers his wife's birthday and buys her some expensive shoes, taking a pair of hers to the shop to make sure they will fit, but he gives him a cold, dead centre. What has happened to his emotion? Why this sense of guilt? How do we interpret evidence of addiction, possibly adultery, conceivably professional misconduct? Amanda Root is never at rest as Corinne, her agitated eyes seems always expecting disaster even as she tries to present a façade of comfortable domesticity to outsiders. These are well-paired performances.

In contrast is Corinne the American girl, who at first appears to be in the middle of some trauma or zonked out on some substance and emerges from where she's been sleeping with a brash confidence. Naomi Wattis gives her a vitality that shows how drained the others are but we hardly learn anything about her. Correction: I hardly did, this is a play that places big demands on the audience; it would be easy to miss the clues.

Each member of the audience could come away with a different version of the story. If what you like is a straightforward piece of story telling and a clear resolution, this is not for you but you would miss some excellent acting.

Run ends 23rd October 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton