Anthony Neilson’s latest play is a wry examination of tortured artists and overblown filmmakers, a cautionary tale of how ego can sever your links to reality. It may remind you of the more dramatic people on your Instagram feed.
Troubled director Maxim (Matt Smith) is obsessed with capturing light on film. Not just any light: the perfect light. A recent triumph at the Palm D’Or has spurred him to deliver on his latest vision, a post-apocalyptic thriller that will demand every ounce of his cast’s acting ability. Success has grotesquely inflated both his ego and insecurities, and completion of filming depends on his crew sacrificing their professional and personal dignity.
His ludicrous demands – a past project involved strapping cameras to gibbons – recall anecdotes about the painful process of filming movies such as Apocalypse Now and The Revenant. Maxim, for instance, is bewildered by his leading lady Natasha’s (Tamara Lawrance) ability to instantly detach from the harrowing scenes he’s written. He wants her suffering to be authentic.
Around the half-way point, tempestuous actor Ivan (Jonjo O’Neill) crashes onto stage with – at least in theory – the chaotic passion required to make Maxim’s opus soar. It’s difficult to envisage a more enjoyably offensive entrance, and O’Neill delivers throughout as the reckless dope who just wants to be loved. His presence is so disruptive it threatens to eclipse the rest of the play, although it does lead to some brilliant visual gags.
There is a trade-off, however, with the moments of poignancy – especially those between Smith and Lawrance – never quite working in tandem with the bawdy humour. But while Neilson’s script has a tendency to meander, things fall more or less into place during a second half that descends into a joyous cacophony of insults and recriminations.