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Theatre in Review: Tomorrow in the Battle (Stripped Scripts/Ars Nova)

Allison Threadgold, Patrick Hamilton. Photo: George McClintock

The title of Kieron Barry's play is taken from Richard III ("Tomorrow in the battle think on me, And fall thy edgeless sword: despair, and die!"), but don't expect anything as elegant as Shakespeare's tale of murder and sexual abuse. This potboiler is strictly from the soaps, no matter how often the characters indulge themselves in fancy phrases and inapposite literary references. So overwrought is this account of an adulterous triangle that you may find yourself fighting off giggle fits for the duration of its ninety-minute running time.

The action begins, gratuitously, with the actor Patrick Hamilton in his underwear. (Later on, he will be attractively costumed, which is more than his two leading ladies can say.) As he dresses, he recalls a drunken night out with his mates, which ends with one of them falling off a bridge, presumably to his death. This sequence has nothing to do with anything, aside from establishing the prevailing mood of all-purpose despair, which is occasionally broken by interludes of animal passion.

Simon and his wife, Anna, are just your typical couple: He performs heart transplants and she purchases nuclear weapons for the Ministry of Defense. (One of the script's few mordant passages features Anna using the tortured language of government policy to explain how owning, and being willing to use, such deadly arms is the only way to guarantee peace. Her willingness to swallow such nonsense goes a long way toward explaining her dishonest behavior later on.) Their marriage functions, more or less, eased by success in their workplaces. Trouble arrives in the form of Jennifer, who works as a rainmaker for a financier. ("Investors want an eight percent return. Alex generally gives them eleven," she says, a remark that should set off alarm bells.) Like the others, Jennifer appears to live almost entirely in her head, deploying literary references at the oddest moments. For example, lying in bed next to the working-class stranger she has just boffed, she gazes out the window "at East London's ambiguous, replaceable sky," meditates on the Italian poet Cesare Pavese and Goethe, quoting his final words ("Mehr licht. More light."). As so many of us have done, I'm sure.

Anyway, Simon and Jennifer meet at the opera and, before long, they are locking themselves in hotel rooms for three days at a time, going at it with undiminished energy. Not that it is exactly enjoyable, for in the hermetically sealed world of Tomorrow in the Battle, pleasure is impossible. Simon, meditating during sex with Jennifer, says, "I begin to think how hopeless this whole thing is, how unwinnable, our sexual history; just one long retreat from joy. Being with her isn't enough, dominating her isn't enough, making her love me isn't enough. I could spend every waking moment fucking her, I could be four men fucking her simultaneously for the rest of my life and I couldn't remove one atom of this thing." Meanwhile, the playwright, shameless when it comes to deploying heavy irony, has the parent of one of Simon's patients say, "There's nothing that man doesn't know about the heart."

Lest you think of Anna as a victim, her suspicions about Simon's infidelity fire her up to plan to seduce one of his friends. Meanwhile, everyone's lives are going to hell in a handbasket. Simon starts hitting the bottle hard, performing transplants under the influence. Anna discovers a massive discrepancy in a nuclear arms deal, one that could cost the government hundreds of millions of pounds, and is charged by her superior with lying about it to a parliamentary committee. And, in one of the least convincing plot twists of the season, Jennifer discovers that her boss, the financial wizard, has feet of clay. It all climaxes in a dinner party from hell -- and don't forget about the gun that has been so carefully placed in the bedroom drawer by the playwright early in the action.

The first big problem with Tomorrow in the Battle is that all these ancillary problems have little or nothing to do with the affair at the center of the plot; they only exist to contribute to the play's fatalistic, joyless atmosphere. The characters indulge the sort of locutions that cry out for an editor's blue pencil. Jennifer dismisses her boss -- "the thin, academic type" -- as a romance prospect. "It would be like making love to celery," she says, whatever that means. Simon, fretting over the affair, says, "Sex offers all the thrill of a nicotine patch. I use it to clamber back up to zero for a few brief moments of total stillness before the horror starts all over again." Describing sex with Simon, Jennifer says, 'It's not enough for me to fuck him, to be fucked by him; I want to eat him, I literally want to push my teeth into him and chew, to swallow and absorb him." Trouble in the Battle is almost entirely narrated, in alternating monologues filled with purple accounts of illicit lust that sound like they came from the Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins paperbacks that I used to sneak-read as a teenager.

Hamilton, Allison Threadgold (Jennifer), and Ruth Sullivan (Anna), have at the script with considerable energy, but, under Tana Sirois' direction, all three deliver relentlessly angst-filled performances that only accentuate the script's risible, all-purpose solemnity. It unfolds on Chika Shimizu's almost-bare stage, which features a small, reconfigurable seating piece backed by a white string curtain. David Shocket's lighting fills the stage with colors that make the actors looked washed out, almost vampiric. As mentioned earlier, in Beth Morgan's costume design, Hamilton gets a rather smart suit, while Sullivan must make do with dowdy outfits and Threadgold with ensembles that make her look like a tramp. No sound designer is credited but there many effects and bits of music.

There's a difference between writing that says something about the world we live in and writing for the sake of writing, and I'm afraid that Tomorrow in the Battle falls into the latter category. No matter how much the dialogue labors, it never seems to connect with real life. With its tortured plot, it manages to be both sordid and high-toned at the same time. It's not an appealing combination. -- David Barbour

(17 October 2017)

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