Somewhat eschewing the traditions of the season the Arcola Theatre is currently injecting a strain of mordant black humour into the midst of this period of good cheer by reviving Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things; an acidic examination of the nature of art and the nature of human relationships.
Over a decade old, it is strikingly, and depressingly apparent, that it has not just avoided ageing but actually feels more relevant now than when it was written. Society’s obsession with the value of appearance over substance has only increased over the last ten years and shows no sign of abating in a world of viral memes and 160 character assassinations.
We were given a timely reminder of how proud we should feel about what humanity has accomplished in the recent admission by a double-gold medal winning Olympian that they feel insecure next to someone whose only achievement comes from winning Miss UK. It is unclear whether this admission is made more or less powerful by it coming in the middle of show where viewers vote to choose which celebrity eats a kangeroo’s anus.
Neil LaBute’s play opens with a discussion on the vandalism, or potential transformation, of a sculpture. It has already been vandalised/transformed once, to cover the genitals, and so the question arises of whether spray-painting a penis back on counters as further vandalism or is closer to the originally artistic intention. In its questioning of an artist’s right to transform, without permission, a body of work if the effect is to elevate it to a higher plane, LaBute is capturing the spirit of the entire play in a nutshell.
Transformation is the theme that recurs again and again throughout the play. Adam makes constant reference to literary transformations and they act as a reflection on his changing relationship with what is occurring. Early on he refers to Evelyn, playfully, as his Henry Higgins as he begins to see a world of possibilities opening up before him but towards the end of play this opinion has been modified and he sees himself as Kafka’s Gregor Samza; transformed into something that is to be despised.