GAMES WE NEARLY PLAY
It’s the Almeida, Jim, but not as we know it. Hunched on benches in four uneasily intimate soundproofed zones padded with camouflage-print, summoned by a robotic voice and issued with headphones, we watch screens . Then blinds lift and we peer into a real flat where a young couple are exclaiming over the induction hob, the hot tub, the longed-for private space.
Except that it isn’t. The screens show in grainy monochrome a crowded observation space in the flat\s walls, where a Warden admits punters and issues rifles . In detailed CCTV we too see the flat from various angles, always with each sniper’s crosshairs. The residents have got the flat in exchange for being shot repeatedly with tranquillizer darts as they go about daily life. As the horrible boss (Daniel Cerquiera) says to the warden in charge (played with skilful low-key decency by Kevin Harvey) “they’re adults, they’re no’ stupid, they knew what this was”.
And we on our benches, darting our eyes from screen to reality, are complicit. Hard to know whether it is worse to find yourself watching the lovemaking (for it is love, for the young couple, even if just barea-rse ludicrous sex to the voyeurs) or spying on domestic life: hoovering, eating, coming home from another failed job interview…
You can’t fault Mike Bartlett for diversity: fresh from his caricaturish King Charles III he’s back at the Almeida with this hour-long, intense and angrily dystopian show whose themes – picked up artfully in the programme collage – are many. The desperation of young couples for homes and work, the Big Brother culture, pornified sex, TV’s rubberneck interest in poverty, violent screen games, the tendency of showbiz to go a bit further every year, the and the way the ghastly Hollywood glamour of the sniper is irresistible to a soft-living discontented society. Too much? Not really. This deft, brief, unnerving show brings them all together in a “Game” which – at least in the moment – feels real and imminent.
Jodie McNee and Mike Noble play the workless couple, trying for a decent life and a baby. The first time we see them shot we are not yet aware that they will recover. Horribly, the wearying repetition of their collapses continues until it begins to bore the punters and they want more: the extra frisson of shooting their seven-year-old child. He at first is scared, then withdrawn, ironically immersing himself in a violent video game and hiding in cardboard boxes, alienated and ruined. The boss on the screen, his business model fading under pressure of imitators, snarls that it would be better to “make them actually suffer – if this was Holland we could do euthanasia!”.
As the young pair suffer the humiliating price of a home, we see and hear the punters above. The strength of the piece is that it is not cheap agitprop – posh rich people shooting the homeless poor. It’s modern everyman; lads tittering as they aim at the naked girl in the bath, a shrieky hen-party, a bickering middle-aged well-spoken couple, and best (well, worst) of all, a primary schoolteacher relishing the chance to shoot little Liam. So we’re all complicit: even if we don’t yet shoot at the vulnerable, we stare at them through the one-way mirror of the telly and the tabloids. And it corrupts. The last moments of the Warden make that clear, as does the child’s blank-eyed obedience. Nothing physically gruesome: just morally. It’s shock treatment, but Bartlett’s j’accuse says necessary things.