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Welcome to the Dictatorship of Happiness
The Royal Court Theatre surprised its audience with a peculiar Christmas present last year: Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness, the final production of 2012, is a rude awakening from our hunky-dory holiday mood. But what time of the year could be more fitting for a play that confronts us with our obsessions and pathological self-absorption than Christmas: the capitalist culmination of all our hopes and desires?
Part I of the tripartite play—bearing the telling title “Destruction of the Family”—begins with the Christmas showdown: the family dinner. Any illusions about the jolly season are soon to be scattered in the first scene. Grandad (Peter Wight) is a randy old lech, the underage daughter (Seline Hizli) is pregnant (presumably by her uncle, as we are to find out later), Mum (Emma Fielding) is a desperate housewife who tries her best at keeping the family together, while Dad (Stuart McQuarrie) has resigned himself from doing so. So far, nothing tremendously out of the ordinary. Suddenly, the dinner is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of uncle Bob (Paul Ready), who is about to leave the country for good together with his fiancée Madeleine (Michelle Terry). But he won’t depart until he has blown off the enormous hate speech against every family member that Madeleine has forced him to repeat. Before we know what to make of all this, the stage changes to a talk show-esque setting and the family members turn into plain role-models for Part II of the play, “The Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual”. In the following cacophony of opinions it soon becomes clear that the achievement of our so-called individuality in fact does not mean much. Sedated by consumerism, we actually believe that we’re free to “write the scripts of our own life”. All’s fine as long as we possess “the latest touch-screen telephone / plus all the different apps and leads.” While we repeat mantra-like our conviction that we’re “in no way part of a group” we ignore the fact that we’re mere slaves to mass culture.
In the republic of happiness, it is our duty to be perfect, happy, optimized human beings. Therefore, we receive therapy and medication, we diet, we fuck and we work out. To save us from the ennui of meaninglessness, occasionally “we click on trauma and drag it into the document of our life.” But, as those on stage tirelessly repeat: “It’s nothing political!” Or, as uncle Bob sings to us in the final scene: “Hum, hum, hum the happy song. Click on my smiling face and you can install a version of this song that has no words at all.”
Crimp’s plays are famous for being complicated and even ‘too continental’. In the Republic of Happiness is, however, despite the gravity of its subject matter, a true “entertainment in three parts”, just as its subtitle suggests. Doing justice to his own reputation, Crimp delivers a demanding and unsettling map of society’s maladies. Yet In the Republic of Happiness is far more graspable than Crimp’s critically much acclaimed Attempts on Her Life, a set of 17 loosely connected scenes that premiered at the Royal Court in 1997 and has since been translated into more than 20 languages. Director Dominic Cooke has done a brilliant job in staging In the Republic, in particular, orchestrating the various scenes that consist of endless staccatos without assigned dialogue. The ensemble’s acting is outstanding, as are their repeated singing performances. Michelle Terry in the role of Madeleine shows a lot of glamorous potential here. The sets designed Miriam Buechner are surprising: Especially the change to the set of Part III (“In the Republic of Happiness”) is remarkable. The play ends in the sterile, hostile ambience of the Republic of Happiness: a bright white room with nothing but a simple writing desk in front of a window, whose panorama is a startling reminiscence of Andreas Gursky’s photograph ‘Rhein II’. The hint to the most expensive photograph ever sold is probably not accidental here.
Thanks to the accuracy on every level of the performance, the Royal Court succeeds in giving the play coherency despite its topical abundance and thereby turns In the Republic of Happiness into a fulminant finale of its 2012 season.
Helene Wczesniak is reading for an MPhil in Modern Languages at Wadham College, Oxford.