Caring about art is a jumped-up way of only caring about yourself.
Young playwright Polly Stenham blasted onto the theatrical scene back in 2007 with her debut play That Face, written when she was only 19. She’s still just 26 and has just had her third play performed at the Royal Court. That Face was a savage, biting, brilliant portrait of a privileged but deeply dysfunctional family, of a damaged mother and the havoc she wreaks upon her son. In No Quarter, Stenham, with her trademark wit and incisiveness, revisits this world and yet also demonstrates that she has the ability to move beyond it and take on bigger themes.
Tom Scutt’s brilliant set makes an impression even before you enter the small Upstairs theatre – on the walls lining the route hang maps and a set of antlers. On emerging from the narrow passage into the theatrical space, you find yourself in the drawing room of a country manor house, dilapidated and neglected, and full of ‘stuff’: taxidermy, more antlers, candelabra, a suit of armour, a gilded birdcage, various bits and pieces of silverware, a large tapestry, a monogrammed trunk. There’s even a ladder enabling one to reach the books on the upper shelves. In the midst of the overwhelming clutter are Robin, a self-styled ‘landed gypsy’, and his mother Lily, who suffers from dementia.
The first scene between mother and son is where No Quarter is most reminiscent of That Face: there’s a whiff of incest about their relationship (in her less lucid moments, Lily mistakes Robin for her long-deceased husband), and hippie Lily’s decision to home-school Robin, fostering in him a deep appreciation for music and art, has left him unable to cope with university and life in London and has turned him into a drug-addled drop-out tinkering away on the piano. Lily has also made a great demand on Robin: he has sprung her from her nursing home and agreed to help her commit suicide. There are some moving, tender scenes here, including a beautiful moment where mother and son dance to the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), and both Tom Sturridge and Maureen Beattie are superb, particularly Sturridge, rakish and effeminate and sporting a topknot and gold housecoat. Lithe and graceful one moment (swinging from a chandelier) and scheming and ruthless the next as he manipulates and exploits his friends, Sturridge is instantly believable as a grown-up, invariably drunk Peter Pan-like character.
Robin has much in common with Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem – both men have retreated from the world, cling to a dying way of life and indulge in an orgy of drink and drugs – and, like Butterworth, Stenham is keen to explore this idea of a changing Britain. Robin’s shock at what he encounters in London – people wedded to their mobile phones, worrying incessantly about money and mortgages, giving greater weight to information instead of knowledge – is paralleled in his desperate battle to prevent the ramshackle family home from being sold. His older brother, Oliver, represents the other side of the debate, and knows they cannot afford to keep the house going. Savagely rational Oliver, MP for Croydon North, denounces Robin as a ‘princeling’, egotistical and unrealistic.
In addition to this biting social commentary which invites us to examine modern life and our own choices, Stenham, further demonstrating her growth and development as a writer, crafts an exchange between the two brothers at the end of the play in which they clash over the nature and value of art. While Oliver sees art as inherently self-serving and offering no communal benefit (in contrast to the practical work he is trying to do as a politician), Robin counters that those who make art make ‘beauty’, giving people ‘ships to cling to’. Robin argues that everyone ‘fights ugliness in their own way’ and that his music is his own contribution to making the world a better place. Stenham has written a self-reflexive piece that challenges us, as we watch this piece of contemporary art, to ask ourselves what we think about it and what our relationship to it is. It is a mark of her talent that she permits neither of the brother’s viewpoints to triumph, presenting both with surety and a marked even-handedness.
In addition to these meaty, weighty arguments, Stenham includes fizzing, hilarious lines such as ‘I would punch a baby for a cigarette’ and ‘I’m as high as a pilot’s lunchbox’, and has also scripted a long central section in which a party – a wild, crazy night full of sex, drugs, dressing-up, a crossbow, fireworks and an air-raid siren – spirals madly, and eventually tragically, out-of-control. The whole sequence is full of an appropriately dangerous energy, and Zoe Boyle and Joshua James are particularly good as twins Scout and Arlo, complete with their own twin language.
My only complaint about No Quarter is that it felt fractionally too long at two hours without an interval, and some of the scenes might have benefited from a slight trimming. Yet I agreed with the decision to play it straight through, as the lack of a break gives the play real emotional impact, leaving you feeling bruised and breathless by the end, as broken and exhausted as the characters following their night of debauchery.
Stenham has emphatically proven that she is no one-hit wonder, and it is heartening to see her developing as a writer. In No Quarter she is clearly writing about what she knows and does best (mothers and sons, dysfunctional families, disaffected youth), but she is working with this familiar material in a new way, developing and exploring new concepts of class, culture, identity, beauty, and art. Most impressively, Stenham manages to balance the seriousness of these ideas with a youthful exuberance, shockingly brilliant dialogue and no little sense of cool.