‘Am I losing pages?’, a review of The Treatment

Venue: Almeida Theatre
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Written by: Martin Crimp

Almeida Theatre is attracting some of Britain’s brightest acting talent. It’s not hard to see why. While the likes of Andrew Scott and Ben Wishaw, recent recruits in other productions, are here absent, the aura of quality and electric potential is certainly not.

Almeida’s theatre space itself strikes an interesting balance between big spectacle and the atmosphere of a cosy, closed environment. The Treatment benefits from this cross-purpose. It is a play about cities and the myriad characters that haunt their streets. The writing and theatrical space here manage, like all modern cities, to be intimate and anonymous, lonely and alienating at the same time.

Which city do we focus on? Somewhere in America, but it doesn’t matter much. ‘Metropolis’ is enough. It’s size and spectacle is suggested in futuristic sets and transient spaces clad in grey minimalism; further amplified by fragmented writing where characters often talk over one another, and staging which places walk-on extras in most scenes.

As a result, the background is rarely allowed to rest. A Japanese restaurant, a dumpster alley, a Tube station: all locations teem with other human life. Figures flit by in private conversation, on the way to meetings, mini-dramas glimpsed in seconds-long vignettes. We are constantly made aware that the main stories focused on are arbitrary, to an extent, just a handful among many others.

Which narratives do we pay attention to? Which ones bring us the most pleasure? How do you define that pleasure – is it the most salacious, dramatic or meaningful personal stories that are the most worthy? While this isn’t a story about the press, or even celebrity culture, it contains messages that ring true in the real world, echoing across an increasingly sensationalist public sphere.

‘A true story over which we have complete control’
 – Jennifer, The Treatment

The city is the real star, the facilitator for endless human drama. The Treatment seems to refute the city’s possible neutrality though: it is repeatedly implied as a corruptive force, where mental health issues are made into performance art for the street. We bear witness to soliloquising, car-boot-salesmen-cum-artists; to frantic policemen imploring the public for aid. The city provides a stage, but no guiding hand.

Narrative-wise, the focus lies on authenticity and reproduction. We follow two producers (Show-runners? Studio executives?), whose job is to mine true stories from the public, for televisual retelling to a wider audience. Except, some stories need a little embellishment. Jennifer (Indira Varma) asks testimony-provider Anne (Aisling Loftus), who volunteers her own story of marital abuse, if it wouldn’t be more ‘believable’ if there were more struggle. Or more conflict, more violence, etc. In augmenting eye-witness testimony for dramatic purposes, The Treatment calls into question all personal narratives: how much do we keep secret? What emphasis do we give to elements in our own stories? Is it still fundamentally true if we exaggerate for effect?

A slippery slope ensues. Everyone’s narrative is questioned television the producers. As the play rolls on, we are less and less sure of each character’s back story and intentions. Is Anne telling the truth about being held hostage by her husband? Does producer Andrew really have heartfelt feelings for Anne? Is Simon, ostensibly Anne’s husband, who he says he is?

The trustworthy, genuine exception that proves this deceptive rule is a blind taxi driver, who freely admits his deficiencies but struggles on regardless. He does not seek recognition or validation, surrendering himself (and his passengers) instead to the whims of universal chance. There is something of Tiresias – the blind oracle in the Odyssey – about him. It’s as if we descend into his eternal night between scenes too: the Almeida’s lighting vanishes completely during transitions, plunging the audience into unnerving total darkness.

Ben-Onwukwe-Taxi-Driver_The-Treatment_credit-Marc-Brenner

Ben Onwukwe as the wise, blind Taxi Driver

‘We don’t often meet real people here. The realness was burned out of us’
– Andrew, The Treatment

A few minor quibbles. The lack of any television or film cameras, when this is supposed to be a story about filmic adaptation, seems an oversight. At the least it’s a missed opportunity: plenty of interesting material could have been harvested in putting Anne in front of the camera. The adaptation of her story is denied flesh here. Instead, we are informed in reported dialogue of the film’s construction and subsequent success. The Treatment also ended on a bittersweet note for me. The final, climactic scene, is one of the play’s most effective: the narrative symbols seem to distilled and fully coherent for the first time, while the visual spectacle is sincere and spine-chilling[1]. And then it ends. Whether I was slow on the uptake, or just need a repeat viewing, on first time around it felt like the meat of the matter had just been served up. This unresolved hunger after a series of dynamite lines, fine acting and elegant staging deserved a more resounding conclusion.

Book tickets here.

[1]  I’m trying to give away as little as possible.

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