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.
LaBute doesn’t just limit himself to superficial changes; he also turns his acute gaze on how the personality of a person can change along with the physical. Over the course of the play the dynamic between Adam and his friends is irrevocably altered and LaBute summons the spectre of Othello in Adam’s accusing Evelyn that ‘next you’re going to tell me that the handkerchief with the strawberries on it is missing’.
This reference point gains an awful appropriateness as the play draws to its conclusion as, like Othello, tragedy lies in the fact that what occurs has been delivered not through truth but suggestion. The path that he chooses to go down may have been laid by his personal Iago but Adam, like Othello, chooses to go down it willingly.
The Shape of Things, like many American plays, is primarily an actor’s play. These are beefy roles, which require strong, dynamic performances. There is a brashness and confrontational attitude written into the characters that requires a certain temperance by the actors if the audience are not going to leave drained by the whole experience.
It is credit to the cast that, for the most part, they do avoid this particular pitfall. Sean McConaghy is very impressive throughout Adam’s transformation, and not just physically but also in detailing the changes to his personality; imbuing Adam with a new found confidence that sits delicately on surface of his newly buried neuroses.
Anna Bamberger manages to carve out some interesting territory as Evelyn. It is probably the most difficult part in the play as she is to some extent both catalyst and cipher. Her character is the most cartoonish of the
quartet and risks being a constant reminder that for as much as LaBute wants to reflect the real world, most of us don’t associate with people quite this awful in real life. However Bamberger grounds the performance in a reality many of us would recognise, which is the truly precious nature of a 22-year old post-graduate art student. We see that the apparent self-possessed belief is masking an undercurrent of insecurity.
However Harrie Haye’s Jenny is the quiet star of the production. Her scene with Adam is wonderfully underplayed amidst the clamour of the rest of the play. As the pace slows and we see something approaching normality, Hayes brings a real naturalness to her interplay – the delicacy of her hand brushing Adam’s and the tension in this tiny gesture providing a delicious counterpoint to the noise that surrounds Evelyn and Philip.
The set design by Takis must also be applauded. It is an original and innovative piece of work that fully understands and works within the limitations of the Arcola space. To say much more would be to spoil the effect but the flexibility of it and how it seamlessly blends into the wider theme of transformation is truly impressive. Everything in the set has been thought out down to the smallest detail and, in one of my favourite touches, the barrier to the museum is marked out in what is instantly recognisable as the colours of American police tape: the audience immediately know, like Chekhov’s gun, that once that line is crossed only bad things can happen. And they do.