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Howard's Bitter End 

A British playwright's violent, unsparing look at the aftermath of divorce

Wednesday, Aug 10 2005
My friend Sophia, who used to date British playwright Howard Brenton's son, Sam, recently said of her then-boyfriend's father: "I never really understood how the man who made such excellent frittatas could write such brutal plays." Born in 1942, Brenton acquired a notorious reputation in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s with his aggressively political dramas exploring such themes as urban terrorism (Magnificence), local governmental corruption (Brassneck -- written in collaboration with David Hare), and class warfare (Weapons of Happiness). Though more domestic in character, the dramatist's 1979 play Sore Throats is as much of a punch to the gut as his other, more overtly political plays. As a result, it's hard, at first, to reconcile Last Planet Theatre's production of this anarchic, violent play centering on a broken marriage with Soph's image of the convivial middle-class dad prodding eggs about in a pan for his son and his son's girlfriend on a London Saturday morning.

The daytime-soap-esque plot of Sore Throats gives little of the play's raw expressive power away. Revolving around the aftermath of an ugly divorce between a 45-year-old policeman, Jack, and his 39-year-old ex-wife, Judy, Sore Throats proffers a deeply nihilistic perspective on the nature of marital relationships. In the first act, Jack, who has eloped with his mistress, Celia, turns up at his ex-wife's new apartment, demanding his share of the money from the sale of their previous home. The two of them go at each other like a pair of spitting cats, dredging up all the misery of their years together, from the disappointing sex to their vengeful fantasies. When Judy refuses to sign the legal document that would turn over half of the house profits to Jack, he beats the signature out of her and leaves. But when Jack returns shortly afterward to pick up a prized penknife he accidentally left behind, Judy's prospective roommate, a worldly 23-year-old media sales worker by the name of Sally, intervenes, allowing Judy to tear up the signed document. The second act, which takes place about a year later in the same apartment, sees Judy and Sally now living a hedonistic life together. The pair have been steadily spending the spoils of Judy's divorce on booze, sex, rich foods, and lavish vacations, when Jack arrives on the scene once again, with a suitcase and baby carrier in hand. Pushed to her emotional limits, Judy finally takes control of her future in a tumultuous way.

From Edward Bond's play Saved (1965), in which a baby is stoned to death in its stroller, to characters shooting up and being raped in more recent works by playwrights like Mark Ravenhill and the late Sarah Kane, the British theater (as well as its American counterpart) has become accustomed to explicit acts of sex and violence in the 26 years since Brenton wrote Sore Throats. And packed with parochial references to "King's outpatients," "Y-fronts," and "the other woman's knickers," Sore Throats is so deeply entrenched in the language and culture of 1970s Britain that one wonders how it might go over in front of a contemporary U.S. audience. But the play still resonates thousands of miles away from the suburban London in which it is set and after more than a quarter of a century in time -- testimony both to the power of the writing and to Last Planet's compact yet emphatic staging.

Brenton's play has its physically vicious moments: For example, when the amiable, shambling Matt Leshinskie as Jack in Last Planet's production first strikes Judy (Heidi Wolff) in the mouth, even familiarity with the play does not ready you for the clipped brutality of the act. But the true source of conflict and shock in Sore Throats isn't in these physical acts of violence -- it's in the startling pictures evoked by the characters' words. The images are as bizarre as they are frightening and as masochistic as they are vengeful. "I am thinking of using this money to have an operation," says Judy early on. "I would like bits of ferocious animals grafted onto me. Adders' heads for breasts? Nipples that suck, rather than get sucked? And for a womb, what for a womb? Yes. A tiger's head for a womb." Meanwhile, in another fantasy, Jack imagines himself "discovered by a fellow police officer, outside a Trustees Savings Bank, my trousers and my Y-fronts down, my bum exposed to the night air and the fingers of passing drunks -- with my cock jammed in a 24-hour cash-dispensing machine."

Underscored by Alex Lopez's lurid, technicolor lighting design -- which under any other circumstances would bring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or a ride at Disneyland to mind, but is more suggestive, in this case, of a particularly severe migraine -- the characters freely express their warped impulses. Director John Wilkins has the actors chasing each other about on the carpeted floor of Judy's empty apartment like animals, revealing their basest instincts. Each actor demonstrates the despicable in his or her character's nature: Embodying the archetypal "woman scorned," Wolff rages like a fury. Leshinskie is calmly diabolical as the abusive Jack. And Miranda Calderon as the play's "ingénue," Sally, sucks the other two dry.

But what Wilkins and his cast brilliantly understand is that for all the brutality of its language, Sore Throats has an ardently redemptive core. The characters might behave in the most childish of ways (indeed, all three of them seem to be going through a latent anal phase with their frequent references to each other's sexual organs), but the actors manage to convey a subtle beauty in Judy, Jack, and Sally that on occasion transcends the mess of these characters' lives. There's Sally's impulsive defense of Judy; Jack's tender speech about helping the pregnant Celia give birth following a car accident in the Canadian wilderness; and Judy's final triumphant proclamation: "I am going to be fucked, happy, and free." Last Planet's production lucidly conveys the tension between the things in life that drag people down (money, marriage, sex) and the things that keep them from going under (the human will, the drive for freedom).

Ultimately, Sore Throats espouses the sentiment that life, though a messy business, must be lived. As the old saying goes, "You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs." And Brenton, standing over his frittata on a Saturday morning, understands this more than most.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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