wed 20/11/2019

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, National Theatre

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, National Theatre

Stephen Adly Guirgis's Broadway hit is entertaining if a bit too studied in its UK debut

Say that again? Alec Newman and Ricardo Chavira in the UK debut of `The Motherf**ker with the Hat' Mark Douet

The play that lost the 2011 Tony Award to War Horse is now receiving its British debut at the very address where War Horse premiered. But such theatrical coincidences won't register in most circles as much as a title, The Motherf**ker with the Hat, that sent newspaper copy desks into a tailspin (the New York Times didn't print the M word at all, even with the asterisks). Such hoo-ha, one feels, makes a certain kind of sense given the perpetual tailspin in which the characters in Stephen Adly Guirgis's high-octane theatrical universe exist.

If that primal energy seems a tad muted on this occasion, the play still very much merits a look-in, not least for a notable British stage debut from Desperate Housewives co-star Ricardo Chavira, inheriting the part that brought Bobby Cannavale a Tony nod on Broadway, and for one of the most seamless amalgams of British and American actors since Matthew Warchus revived Sam Shepard's Buried Child in this same auditorium over a decade ago. Here again is welcome proof that dodgy American accents – take a bow, Alec Newman, the Scotsman here ably stepping into a part originated by, of all people, Chris Rock – would seem to be a thing of the past. 

At the same time, on second exposure to the text, one is aware of a vaguely studied pattern to writing that often repeats or doubles back on itself, one's feeling of Guirgis playing authorial puppeteer amplified by a scenic design from Robert Jones that encases the characters within a lit rectangular frame as if they were so many specimens on display. (One wonders whether Indhu Rubasingham's staging might have been more happily served around the corner in the Dorfman rather than here at the Lyttelton.)

That distancing effect is a shame given that the playwright's compassion – the odd sentimental streak, even – is there to be savoured in Guirgis's anatomy of an addiction-prone assemblage of folk who love as fiercely as they rage. Nor do they have any intention of going gently into the same night that hovers suggestively throughout: as the characters slide into view on one or another movable platform for each scene, they appear out of an inky blackness that would devour a less voluble quintet whole: Oliver Fenwick is the lighting designer. 

The first to go on the verbal rampage is Veronica (Flor De Liz Perez, pictured above), whose opening monologue tips us off at once to the emotional extremes that typify Guirgis-land. Laying comic but also pointed waste to her (unseen) mother's choice of men, Veronica soon directs her coke-fueled energies at longtime boyfriend Jackie (Chavira), an ex-con who looks to be grabbing hold of life afresh – or would be if he weren't done in by suspicion over the unexplained appearance in their Times Square hostelry of a hat that comes to symbolise all manner of betrayals. The handkerchief in Othello is a comparative bagatelle. 

What ensues across nine scenes (no interval) is a round-robin of shifting affections and allegiances that spirals out beyond this sparring duo to take in a second combative couple, Jackie's sponsor Ralph (Newman) and his envenomed wife Victoria (Nathalie Armin), as well as Jackie's fluttery yet fierce cousin, Julio (the priceless Yul Vázquez, the cast's lone hold-over from New York): an apparently pansexual health-food hipster who is no stranger himself to talking the talk. How often have you heard "Van Damme" used as a verb (Vázquez pictured above)?

A bit like the cheerfully sententious Ralph himself, Guirgis has a habit of elaborating his themes ("we're all gonna die anyway," is Ralph's unarguable view of things), and one misses on this occasion the sense of life caught on the lam that coursed through a New York production that was in every way more helpfully in your face – that's to say, not enveloped in the visual limbo on view here. (The sloping platforms are there to reflect the destabilisation of the characters, or so one assumes.)

At the same time, I can't imagine passing up the opportunity to see this cast, Chavira in particular suggesting the manchild that is Bobby in full gun-toting flow, all the while exhibiting stage chops to make one wonder why this TV name isn't a more formidable presence on the American stage. As for the off-colour title, rest assured that even David Mamet in his prime doesn't wield the F-bomb so deftly, and if I lost track after a while of the number of times the expletive is used, one never loses sight of the abiding charity – sweetness, even – that is brought to bear on a feral world. Beneath the mounting and varied betrayals beats a ceaseless heart.

Comments

I thought the production was pitch perfect and very moving. Perhaps sitting in Row A of the stalls is the answer to the immediacy problem. Highly appreciated, even by an audience of OAPs.

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