Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Mosquitoes at the National

One of the plays that was on my radar to see during this trip to London was Mosquitoes, which is on at the National's intimate Dorfman Theatre (formerly the Cottesloe) until the end of this month. The playwright, Lucy Kirkwood, is one of the buzziest in the UK, having attracted a great deal of attention (and a lot of awards) for Chimerica a few years ago. Then there was the fact that it would be starring the two Olivias: Williams and Colman, that is, with the latter having long been a favourite from TV programs like Broadchurch and The Night Manager. But of course when I tried to book tickets from Vancouver all performances were sold out. However, when I randomly checked the National's website on Monday, miraculously there were tickets available to the Tuesday matinee.

The performances lived up to, and in places surpassed, my expectations. The play, however, is a bit too ambitious for its own good, suffering from an excess of plot lines and ideas. The main drama concerns the tense relationship between sisters Alice (Olivia Williams), who is a top flight particle physicist working on the Higgs boson as part of the Large Hadron Collider lab at the CERN facility in Geneva, and Jenny (Olivia Colman), a telephone insurance salesperson living in Luton who spends a lot of her time on the Internet. Following the sudden death of Jenny's young daughter (which is partly connected to her incessant Googling), she and the sisters' aging mother, Karen (Amanda Boxer), herself a retired scientist, descend on Alice in Geneva just as she and her team at CERN are about to launch the next phase of their research, and also while she's dealing with her temperamental teenage son, Luke (Joseph Quinn), who holds his mother responsible for the flight several years earlier of his father. Jenny's grief-laden self-destruction, combined with the family's long history of dysfunction and mutual recrimination (which mostly centres around the gap between Alice's intelligence and Jenny's apparent stupidity), sets off a chain reaction of cause and effect relations that culminate in Luke's disappearance.

The problem is that all of this is hung only very loosely--and wholly metaphorically--on the idea of particle physics and the chaotic make up of universal matter, whose lessons are rather high-handedly delivered to us by a lab coated character called the Boson (Paul Hilton), and which must additionally serve as a representational allegory for the perils of social media, the plight of women in patriarchal society, and the weight of family inheritance. Then, too, I found that the emotional core of the play was not entirely credible: that Alice and her mother could be so consistently cruel to Jenny in putting down her intelligence when, clearly, she is the only character who can intuit what is wrong with Luke starts to grate after a while. Obviously we are meant to understand that Alice is blindly obtuse in matters of the heart. But why this at once mutually sustaining and parasitic relationship between the two sisters needs all of the added carapace that Kirkwood has built around it, is beyond me.

And it is in part these structural weaknesses in the play, I think, that explains its overproduced staging, with all kinds of fancy multimedia effects and physical tricks used by director Rufus Norris to embellish the science that we are also told very bluntly at one point we are too stupid to understand. Maybe that's true. However, one thing I do know is that but for the brilliance of her cast, Kirkwood's play would likely not connect with audiences at all.


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