'Unreachable': Theater Review

Unreachable Production Still - Publicity - H 2016
Matt Humphrey

Unreachable Production Still - Publicity - H 2016

An entertaining but shallow satire on artistic vanity.

Erstwhile Doctor Who Matt Smith returns to the London stage in an experimental comedy about diva directors and egomaniac actors, devised in rehearsals by director and cast.

The line between creative genius and insufferable clown can be dangerously thin. That appears to be the fairly obvious take-home message of Unreachable, a new experimental ensemble comedy from Scottish-born writer-director Anthony Neilson, which features former Doctor Who star Matt Smith as its main marquee draw. In terms of stage presence and big laughs, however, a colorless Smith faces serious competition from his co-stars.

Once infamous for his graphic depictions of sex and bodily functions, Royal Court veteran Neilson devises plays from scratch during rehearsals, a collective process similar to that of Mike Leigh in movies. Unreachable begins as a scathing satire on the absurd extremes of artistic arrogance, but soon evolves into a conventional backstage farce, grounded in movie-biz cliche and caricature. As rowdy comedy, it hits the target most of the time. But if Nielson began with more lofty dramatic intentions, they got lost in the journey from blank page to opening night.

Returning to the London stage for the first time since starring in Rupert Goold's original 2013 production of American Psycho, Smith plays Maxim, a narcissistic film director in the depths of shooting his long-cherished dream project, an apocalyptic science-fiction thriller with philosophical overtones. A passive-aggressive perfectionist perpetually scarred by never knowing his real parents, Maxim is plotting to delay production as long as possible in order to capture a quasi-mystical perfect light, which may only exist in his fevered imagination. Fresh from winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes, he sneers, "Why should I be grateful for the acclaim of corpses?"

Despite the protests of his long-suffering producer Anastasia (Amanda Drew) and cinematographer Carl (Richard Pyros), Maxim hits on the surefire self-sabotage scheme of casting his longtime screen sparring partner Ivan (Jonjo O'Neill), aka The Brute, a temperamental Eastern European star with a gargantuan ego and incontinent sexual appetites. But in a reversal reminiscent of Mel Brooks' classic farce The Producers, Maxim's plan backfires when Ivan begins a soul-soothing romance with the film's wily financier Eva (Genevieve Barr), who is playing subtle power games backstage, lining up possible replacements in case she needs to fire her petulant director.

For all its unorthodox origins, Unreachable emerges as an old-fashioned, very British romp full of sexual innuendo and vintage showbiz folklore. The archetype of film director as demanding tyrant is well established, from Hitchcock to Kubrick to Cimino. But Maxim arguably most closely resembles Andrei Tarkovsky, which may explain why most of the characters have Russian names. Ivan, meanwhile, is very obviously modeled on notorious German cult actor Klaus Kinski, from his wild swoop of blond hair to his hilarious torrents of scatological insults. Kinski's fabled gun-toting feud with director Werner Herzog during the making of Aguirre, the Wrath of God also finds an echo during the play's climactic scenes.

Smith gives a quick-witted and nimble performance, making Maxim just sympathetic enough to take the string out of his all-consuming arrogance. But O'Neill's high-energy caricature is the chief comic rocket fuel in Unreachable, all but blasting everybody else offstage. Painted in very broad brushstrokes, The Brute is a juicy feast of a role, and O'Neill relishes every profane mouthful and volcanic temper tantrum. At one point during press night, he and Barr corpsed into uncontrollable laughter, carrying the audience with them.

Betraying its experimental roots, Unreachable has a disjointed rhythm, often feeling more like a series of loosely linked vignettes than a smoothly integrated drama. A little overstretched at more than two hours, the play's comic energy surges and slackens, but never dissipates completely. If once it was shocking, Neilson's signature use of bawdy humor feels tame by contemporary standards, though there is a highly amusing sexual set-piece involving camera cases.

All six castmembers do good work, but Tamara Lawrence deserves special mention as the film's female lead Natasha. A recent RADA graduate, Lawrence is required to switch fluidly among different accents and emotional registers, with the most weighty dramatic monologues resting on her young shoulders. Bigger, brighter roles will surely follow.

Technically, the staging is purposely stark, with mobile screens doubling for scenery on a bare-walls set, and each scene announced over loudspeakers as on a movie shoot. A final special-effects flourish involving artificial forests, falling blossoms and real woodland creatures is an impressive coup de theatre, but it strikes an oddly incongruous note after Neilson has just spent two hours resolutely demolishing fanciful auteur notions of artistic transcendence

At heart, Unreachable is an enjoyably shallow satirical romp pitched at fans of Smith and Kinski, but not much more. I left the theater with a burning urge to re-read Kinski's hilariously depraved autobiography, since that was a clear source of raw material for O'Neill's scene-stealing, steam-belching performance.

Venue: Royal Court Theatre, London
Cast: Genevieve Barr, Amanda Drew, Tamara Lawrence, Jonjo O'Neill, Richard Pyros, Matt Smith
Director-playwright: Anthony Neilson
Set designer: Chloe Lamford
Costume designer: Fly Davis
Lighting designer: Chahine Yavroyan
Music & sound designer: Nick Powell
Video designer: Zsolt Balogh
Presented by Royal Court Theatre