Closer by Patrick Marber, which played for one performance in Chipping Norton on 9 June, was the third ace in The Theatre’s June programme, along with The Colour of Poppies and Greed. By far the most complex drama of the three, by turns comedy, tragedy and psychodrama, Closer is an intimate study in the spaces, sometimes the gulfs, that defy intimacy in our age.
Anna (a slick Amanda Osborne) is a photographer, hence the title of the play, who specialises in portraits of anonymous people caught unawares. Her favourite place to catch these specimens is the aquarium. On a professional assignment she photographs obituary writer Dan (the excellent Ben Nathan), who has by chance rescued a stripper/waif named Alice (the brilliant Josie Taylor), who intrigues a dermatologist named Larry (a sexually predatory Kevin Drury). The four begin a complex set of affairs, break-ups, crises, call them anything but scenes, that are the playwright’s box of tricks. He does the dramatic equivalent of photographing the four at key moments in their relationships, keeping himself anonymous and stealing their identities, exhibiting them for voyeurs (us, the audience) and then snapping shut his apparatus to close off involvement. The fourth wall of the stage, the invisible one that closes off the actors from the audience, is in one of his comparisons a mirror to the actor and a silent, secure means for us to observe what is none of our business. The emotion is raw, the language is filthy, the souls laid bare are stripped, sometimes comically, beyond modesty. It is a gem of a play, though it could be shortened, and the four young actors explore and exploit their roles like guests at a feast. In keeping with the theme, the set consists of nothing but a small number of geometrical boxes, that are by turns chairs, tables, beds, exhibition rostra, placed in a black box. The lighting is also simple, or seems so until you realise that every action has taken place in the classic still photography setup, key light, fill light and spotlight. The clothes are many and well designed, each scene being defined, as if in a still photograph, by what the actors are wearing. Assured without being slick, the action is directed to move from tableau to tableau, with the one exception, Dan’s physical attack on Alice, coming as a shock.
As the play progresses, it is clear that it will be Alice who breaks out of this box. Vulnerable, a willing sex object in her work as a stripper, a girl who is whatever anyone hires her to be, she proves to have no identity. She reclaims the negatives of her by-now-famous photograph from Anna, and disappears. Was it her devils that killed her, or was it only a taxi? We won’t know, because that is outside the frame of the photograph.
Closer than a close-up, fascinating, repellent – remarkable theatre, impeccably presented