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The Death of the Playwright

Adele Hampton | August 17, 2016


Dr Peter Maber, Lecturer in English

It’s difficult to imagine that a play could present any more of a challenge to the critic than this: Laughing Matter, by James Thomson and Paul Lichtenstern, not only leaves us devoid of any certainties, but anticipates, mockingly, our possible responses. It has an answer for everything and nothing.

The play, and its performance, are magnificent. They are, by turns, and sometimes simultaneously, devastating, infuriating, hilarious. The richness of the play’s thinking extends to its form, and is matched by its verbal dexterity, supported with a total control of tone and pace. Tom Stoppard and Woody Allen are fleetingly called to mind, but the work remains very much its own, sui generis.

Hybridity is the play’s hallmark, and James is unnervingly convincing in each of its several modes. It takes a huge amount of control to appear as natural as he does on stage, let alone the many shifts, from confidant to lecturer, from mourner to relaxing actor, even from son to father (played for the most part by the equally brilliant Keith Hill). It is a strength of both writing and performance that we can invest in its individual moments in so many different ways. The central section, a set of variations upon an ostensibly verbatim theme, remains affecting despite the later suggestion it is satire. The actors wear those irritating earpieces, the staple of verbatim performance – as if learning by heart would compromise the authenticity; we later hear that ‘Paul chose to have fake headphones’, but even within the illusion these have a far more ambitious function than in verbatim pieces, in seeming to generate a rhythmic ground of reality upon which retrospective and future perspectives can play. The form not only illustrates the concern with determinism and subjectivity, but takes on a psychological dimension, suggestive of repetition compulsion.

James has gone one better than Ian McEwan’s fictional journal article appendix to Enduring Love, in actually getting an article published that fosters his work’s illusion. But the sections on the problems of communication between father and son reminded me of a non-fiction piece by McEwan, in which he describes his early frustrations with his mother’s ‘little remarks’ – banalities that cause him irritation and even despair. Only later he comes to understand that ‘the content is irrelevant. The business is sharing.’ Despite its many layers of artifice, the reality of Laughing Matter’s illusions can be heart-rending.

Congratulations indeed to ‘James’ and ‘Paul’, whoever they may be.