Unreachable. Royal Court Theatre.

Tamara Lawrence and Matt Smith
Photos: Tristram Kenton

Anthony Neilson’s latest offering was created in the rehearsal room using a number of stimuli to influence the devising process. The decision was made to display these stimuli on a website dedicated to the creative process. Sound risky? Yes! Does it make for a fascinating afternoon at the theatre? Absolutely! Coming out of Unreachable, I felt as though I had witnessed something different, something special; as though the play is as unique as the ‘light’ that central character Maxim is seeking to enhance his film. These days there are so many companies looking for a fresh approach to theatre; taking it outdoors in site specific work, offering up promenade or immersive productions and turning theatre into an experience. I'm in no way saying these ‘new’ approaches aren't interesting and valid, but as I left the Royal Court yesterday, I had the realisation that I had just seen something completely original, fresh and brimming with life. All of this within the constraints of a proscenium arch and using traditional conventions of theatre. Who would have thought it possible in this time of experimentation and invention? In a bold step the creative process was recorded online on a website displaying the rehearsal room stimuli. This was interesting for the ‘soon to be’ audience member in guessing what type of piece they would see and, when watching, delving into the layers there to be considered. 

The play focuses on Maxim, a director who has recently won the Palme d’Or, and his struggle to capture the perfect light in which to make his film. Rehearsal room research had already taken the company through examination of synesthesia, Savant Syndrome and autism, all of which may or may not play a part in Matt Smith’s portrayal of the director. It makes complete sense to consider these possible traits, whether or not they are ultimately applied within his characterisation. We are forced to consider the reasons behind his isolation, lack of empathy and absence of meaningful social interactions. He relies on monologues from his film to engage with an actress who we can see he forms an attachment to. As he encourages her to perform the speech motivated by different emotions, he is perhaps trying to see in others the social empathy he simply does not possess. In addition to which, the repetition and obsessive nature of the character may well point towards the autistic spectrum. 

We are told early on that Maxim’s parents are both dead, and as the action progresses, the characters surrounding him seem to take on the roles lacking in his real life. Producer Anastasia (Amanda Drew) appears to be a maternal figure alongside Carl (Richard Pyros), a more outwardly communicative character, the Director of Photography in a secret affair with Anastasia, who tries desperately to move Maxim’s process forwards. A father figure perhaps. Drew’s measured, sensible characterisation provides a balance with Pyros’ frustrated Carl; a juxtaposition one often sees in relationships, thus further reinforcing the idea of these characters representing the parental influence lacking in Maxim’s life. He is often in a dreamlike state, perhaps longing for the biological parents he no longer has, and it is often Anastasia and Carl who pull him out of this melancholy.

This idea of each role representing a side of Maxim’s personality is further developed by the introduction of young actress, Natasha, and the arrival of an actor from the past, Ivan, also known as ‘The Brute’. I saw these figures as manifestations of Maxim’s actual personality, rather than the literal representation of Anastasia and Carl. Natasha seems to parallel Maxim’s lack of genuine empathy and emotion. She appears to ‘feel’ only when she is acting, even saying she doesn't know how to do anything else. In the monologue scene I mentioned earlier, the combination of Maxim’s obsession and Natasha’s inability to genuinely ‘feel’ seems to reinforce the traits of autism that might be present within the director. It make me think back to forms of therapy used with autistic children; the card ‘game’ designed to help children with autism to acquire an awareness of what different feelings might look like. Faces showing happiness, sadness, fear etc are captured on cards and the children are required to play a form of snap matching the emotions together. The repetition of the monologue in styles suggested by Maxim held a similar resonance, although one could not say for sure if this was Neilson’s actual intention. There is a certainly the implication that Maxim has internal conflicts, but they manifest themselves in childlike tantrums with his ‘parents’, and in the excitement Smith projects in the scenes with Natasha (Tamara Lawrence). There is a desperation in Maxim to be present in the moment. He sabotages each moment to generate the emotion he lacks the capacity to convey, but is obsessed with the drama of it all.

Matt Smith and Jonjo O'Neill

This leads us to the arrival of Ivan (Jonjo O’Neill), a character Maxim has been keen to bring back into his creative process; a wild, aggressive beast, constantly ‘performing’ and seeking attention. Ivan’s ‘reality’ is a character. In his opening monologue, O’Neill’s delivery is almost Shakespearian. He is the first character to blatantly break the fourth wall, demanding our attention and personifying the inner turmoil bubbling inside of Maxim. I fairly quickly acknowledged the possibility that Ivan represents the dark side of the director. His historical conflict with Carl, the seemingly endless list of sexual antics in his life, his passion, arrogance and selfishness on show for all to see all seem to be a raw declaration of everything lacking in Maxim’s persona to this point in the play. It is as if the desperation to bring Ivan back into the fold allows the audience to see the Maxim’s deepest desires in the chaotic whirlwind of a performance. But you notice I use the word ‘performance’. Much like Natasha, Ivan is a character demonstrating emotion; bragging and boasting, physically representing each emotion, deliberately delivering his lines (even in duologue) with a heightened sense of awareness of their impact on others. Ivan's first entrance is the most obvious suggestion that he is part of Maxim. The connection between Maxim and the place from which Ivan enters is pronounced much earlier on in the piece, with an indication that it/he is something which Maxim cannot manage. O’Neill’s performance is a showstopper; exhausting, hilarious and charismatic. One could see this comment as everything that Maxim might want to be, and in this respect Neilson’s development of the piece as a whole, with his actors, is an extraordinary exploration of one man’s struggle to find a place in the world. Tragically, Maxim’s ‘light’ is, in reality, unattainable and his situation impossible to resolve. 

Chloe Lamford’s set design perfectly encapsulates the passing of time and the transient nature of filmmaking with the use of moveable screens to change location, time and situation. Throughout the play, right up until it's final moments, we can see the back wall of the theatre, the flies and wings. It's ironic that the set ‘bares all’ when the central character is so insular and deluded; a clever touch. Combined with the intermittent sound of film rolling and other diegetic sounds throughout the piece, we are constantly reminded of the other worldliness or ‘false’ elements of the narrative. In the closing moments of the play, the technical elements of the concept come together to finally reveal Maxim’s world, and the light. Without giving too much away, there is a visual nod to the exploration in rehearsal of Japanese Kabuki Theatre, which is deliberately fleeting as in the final seconds, the audience are once again separated from Maxim who exits alone in his own world. 

Some reviews and feedback has revolved around a feeling that Unreachable feels incomplete. That it lacks depth and is essentially at its core a satire of the movie industry. Yes. It is clear Neilson's understands the nature of the industry and the ‘madhouse’ it can be, but what seems to have been missed by some, is what the playwright is famous for; exploring the darkest depths of the human psyche. Unreachable is a deep, dark exploration into a man who cannot, for whatever reason, relate to the world around him. The characters around him reveal a heartbreaking, yet at times hilarious, insight into the void in which Maxim is trapped. Once you access this, Unreachable is a gripping, tragic creation which will stay with you long after the end of its run.  

Unreachable runs at the Royal Court Theate until 6th August 2016.