Monday, 13 July 2015

The Motherf**ker in the Hat

What: The Motherf**ker in the Hat, dir. Indhu Rubasingham (10th June - 20th August)

When: Wednesday 8th July

Where: Lyttleton Theatre at the National Theatre, London

Why: A desire for some English-speaking theatre; the NT's Entry Pass scheme

How: Munching on Twirl Bites and exchanging knowing glances with my brother whenever a Spanish gay slur happened

Dear Reader, it’s been a while. (Charlotte Brontë’s second-choice opening for the final chapter of Jane Eyre.) Since I last scribbled down some thoughts on London theatre about a year ago, I have moved to Spain, where I work as a classroom language assistant and English teacher. A school year has now passed, and with it, a first foray into Spanish theatre. I’ve seen a post-Franco monologue take on Richard III (the bits I understood were indeed hard-hitting), the national dance troupe’s modern ballet version of Carmen (deliciously sexy), a continental kitchen farce involving the onstage boiling of a chicken carcass (moments after I’d ingested a “six seasons” pizza at a fave local Italian restaurant – six seasons, two more than Nature intended!), and a comedy troupe’s light-hearted rendering of The Taming of the Shrew (less misogyny, more bumpkin accents).

I arrived back in the UK nearly two weeks ago hungry for some English drama. Having signed up to the National Theatre’s excellent Entry Pass scheme at some point last year, and not yet taken advantage of it, I browsed the NT’s website for theatrical gold. The Entry Pass scheme is a gem of a programme that offers 16-25 year-olds tickets to NT shows for £5 (and £7.50 for a ticket for a similarly-youthful mate). All you have to do is sign up here, for free! Must make more use of this before I imminently creep over into my second quarter century (cue despair and gin).

It’s hard to pass over a show whose name contains an expletive, and, as there were two stall seats available for my desired Wednesday matinee time slot, I booked away without so much knowing what The Mother**ker with the Hat was about. (From this point onwards, I will refer to the play without asterisks, seeing as I can handle the word “fuck”, despite the NT’s reservations on its publicity. The Spanish language does not exactly shy away from palabrotas, and after having been subjected to a daily earbashing of such niceties as “What the cunt are you talking about?” and “I shit on your whore of a grandmother!” for the past year, I think I can deal with "Motherfucker", even if the NT seems to think the general public can’t.)


Motherfucker is a dramedy by Stephen Adly Guirgis, a New Yorker with his drama fingers in all the drama pies: playwriting, screenwriting, directing, acting. First appearing on Broadway in 2011, Motherfucker is the story of Jackie, an ex-drug dealer whose life seems to be getting back on track, thanks to his loyal friend and AA sponsor Ralph, and his love for his high-maintenance long-term girlfriend Veronica. He gets a job and he gets clean. On returning home to Veronica and seeing a mysterious man’s hat in her apartment, his world begins to unravel, leading to him taking the hat downstairs and shooting it at close range in front of the “motherfucker” tenant he (incorrectly) assumes Veronica to be sleeping with.

Considering Motherfucker is about addiction and betrayal, it is an amusing play. The play’s opening sets the piece’s tone of humour-covering-up-for-something-more-troubling, as Veronica lounges around her bedsit, snorting coke whilst bickering with her mother about the latter’s fish-faced boyfriend. “Take a real good look and just ask yourself, in all honesty,” Veronica asks her, “do I want to fuck him, or fry him up?” (A question we’ve all asked ourselves at some point or another.)

Shag, marry or kill?

This vein of humour runs throughout Motherfucker, bringing us back from the brink time and time again. Part of me was disappointed by this tactic of playing it safe: Guirgis’ quick dialogue brushes up against some interesting social commentaries, but then seems to apologise and back off.

Take Jackie, for example, the play’s protagonist. He is a violent character, but we are continually sheltered from the extent of his violence and shown instead his humorous or affectionate turns. Having just had a stint “upstate” at the start of the play, Jackie is set to return to this euphemism of a prison at the end. Full of love and lust for his childhood sweetheart as the play begins, this quickly escalates to become a possessive aggression. Whilst Veronica gives as good as she gets, the physical reality of Ricardo Chavira’s Jackie’s bulk onstage alongside Flor de Liz Perez’s sylph-like Veronica is no laughing matter. “Don’t underestimate my capacity for violence,” Jackie tells his love, “you’re so lucky I don’t hit women.”

The play’s violence seems too quickly assigned in psychological flashbacks to kids from “the neighbourhood”, presumably the Puerto Rican immigrant community that Jackie comes from, or twisted into slapstick. Even the climactic scene, in which Jackie, having discovered it is Ralph, his sponser buddy, who is in fact the real “motherfucker with the hat”, sees Fight Director Kev McCurdy turn the confrontation between Jackie and Ralph into a charade of two big boys squirming around – Ralph, ever set on getting his life in order, stops mid-fight to fluff a cushion that gets pummelled across the sofa. Even Julio, Jackie’s straight-talking camp cousin, the play’s bastion of good sense and healthy living, wants to go “Van Damme” on Ralph’s treacherous ass. Perhaps to laugh at something is the best way to undermine it, but for me, the play’s resistance to engaging with the undercurrents of violence it presented was a directorial disappointment on the part of Rubasingham.

Hot diggity Van Damme

Motherfucker touches on issues of gender that again I feel it steps away from grappling. Veronica and Victoria, Ralph’s long-suffering wife, are only seen in their domestic contexts. These two Vs only exist as sexual foils to their men, despite what we see of Veronica’s emotional resilience and what we hear of the high-flying Wall Street career Victoria gave up to work alongside her messianic husband in his healthy drinks business. Jackie’s overblown reaction to even the suggestion of Veronica’s cheating is laughable once we find out he has already cheated on her, at least once, and fairly recently, with his interim AA sponsor. The double standards of male and female fidelity start to be scrutinised when Jackie stops himself from sleeping with Victoria out of a respect for the “code” of brothers he and Ralph share: the lack of any sort of respectful “code” between these men and their partners is all the more apparent. In the play’s philandering, it is the women who suffer the consequences: Veronica aborts her and Ralph’s baby, and Victoria slides further into depression. Veronica speaks for the play’s female scope when she asks, “What about me? What about my pain?”

Grumbles aside, Motherfucker does succeed at having genuinely funny moments. Many of these were embodied by Yul Vázquez’s Julio, Jackie’s ageless cousin, who rocked his black vest, gold chain, striped jogging bottoms and shiny moccasins as well as he rocked his Elvis-esque quiff. A notary public who also offers massages and waxes when he’s not working out or whipping up empanadas of varying spiciness, Julio loyally stands by his delinquent cousin out of love for his dead aunt and his gratitude for a kindness Jackie showed him years back in the playground: “Yes it was a long time ago; it was yesterday.” Vázquez delivered Julio’s aphorisms in a beautifully understated, measured manner, contrasting the confused rattle of thoughts that spilled out of Jackie; his constant pace and tone throughout became a source of great humour, as he declared before the big end fight that “Van Damme is hungry”. 

Having had no idea what Motherfucker was about before I entered the Lyttleton, it gets a thumbs up from me. Despite my above comments, the play was pacy and emotive enough to get even my philistinic brother talking about what he had wanted to see from the play’s ending as we wandered over Waterloo Bridge after the curtain call. It raised for me a series of questions that made me want to read and see more of Guirgis’ work: What constitutes “addiction”? (Crazy Ralph’s addiction to his twisted self-help philosophizing bullshit seems stronger throughout that any other character’s addiction to substances, or as he puts it himself, the “cycle of self-sabotage”.) What constitutes “community”? What constitutes “loyalty”? (Can “community” and “loyalty” exist in the world of the play, where “people can be more than one thing”?) And, most pressingly, as Jackie puts it, “Why shouldn’t we all be nice, or at least, like, try?”