April 04, 2015

Mike Bartlett Ups His Game at the Almeida Theatre

Are you game?, photo courtesy of Visit London
            I almost didn’t recognize the Almeida Theatre as I made my way, not to a particular seat, but to a zone for Mike Bartlett’s play, Game. Each audience member was allocated to a different zone with its own unique vantage point. I was handed a set of headphones and entered a confined space decked out in camouflage. A cushioned seat and three television screens greeted me, along with my fellow viewers, who sat a little too close for comfort. I would soon learn that grazing arms with the person next to me would not be the most invasive encounter of the evening.

             The shutters previously obscuring my view opened and introduced a couple in their new home. With my headphones nestled securely to my head, I tuned in to the voices of Carly (Jodie McNee) and Ashley (Mike Noble). Suddenly, I was no longer an avid audience member, but a voyeur in the most Hitchcock way imaginable. The set, or should I say house, was very cleverly devised. It had all of the elements of a “dream house:” a kitchen that spilled into the living room, a spiral staircase, a hot tub, and lots of open space.

             Meanwhile, my headphones were picking up sounds from elsewhere, sounds that synchronized with what the television sets were broadcasting. It became apparent that I was looking at audience members seated in separate zones, while the actors made their rounds to each one. Not only were we watching then, but we were also being watched by unseen strangers, veiled under a cloak of camouflage.

 Carly (Jodie McNee) and Ashley (Mike Noble) move into their "dream house," photo courtesy of Keith Pattison
             Before I viewed Game, there was an air of mystery surrounding it, because I like to approach the theatre by keeping myself in the dark. That’s not to say that I don’t do my research before attending a production, but I tend to restrict my amount of knowledge pertaining to the play. Reading other reviews only clouds my own judgment and I like to enter the theatre with an open mind. I have to say, Game was not what I was expecting at all.

             Encased in their glass “cage,” Carly and Ashley became subhuman, as if I were watching animals in a zoo. As they engaged in mundane tasks like putting away groceries or more intimate exchanges such as arguments, I felt overwhelmingly uncomfortable. Most unnerving of all to witness was perhaps the sex, because I was invading this couple’s privacy, along with all of the other wide-eyed peeping Toms surrounding me. To put it bluntly, we all watched their child’s moment of conception.

             You’re probably wondering what’s the catch. Well, whenever things seem too good to be true, they probably are. Carly and Ashley were afforded their dream house in a housing crisis under one condition: they had to agree to be “game.” Paying customers would take shots at them with tranquilizer darts as they pleased, but the couple would never be forewarned as to when the shots would come. When their son was born, he was placed on the market and he dropped to the floor just like his parents, but with even more ease.

The voyeur's view, photo courtesy of Keith Pattison
             In my zone, a group of girls stumbled in during drunken mid-birthday celebrations. They thought it would be fun to take aim at Carly over and over again. Their complete lack of empathy was jarring, but it made me think of something. When humans hunt animal “game,” this same callousness and complete disregard for life is also present. Only when confronted with the reality of the human equivalent do we see the barbarity of something like trophy hunting.

             When we watch animals having sex, fighting, or with their young, we find it amusing. Yet, people have also become “game,” open to public consumption. Take the example of television series Big Brother, where people tune in to watch the lives of others in an enclosed house. I’ve never been able to grasp why this constitutes entertainment, but then we all have our own ideas of fun.

             I began to feel a bit claustrophobic, a bit panicked, as Game neared its impactful end. That was the point when conscience and ethics tag teamed and made their appearance in the play. Carly and Ashley decided that they needed to leave the “dream” behind, because the risk was becoming greater than the reward. David (Kevin Harvey), the man responsible for manning the station with the tranquilizer gun, entered the house for the first time. Carly and Ashley’s son didn’t want to leave and he was quivering underneath a cardboard box.

Photo courtesy of Keith Pattison
             The little boy had become very fond of a solider game on a handheld electronic device, so David managed to coax him out by giving him instructions and addressing him as "Soldier." Haunting, ghostly images of real military soldiers were suddenly projected onto the walls of the house and the static in my headphones became too much to bear. As a military brat, I felt overcome with emotion. The play’s program featured an article with a newspaper headline reading: “More British soldiers commit suicide than die in battle, figures suggest.” When David was left alone, presumably a former solider himself, he turned the tranquilizer gun on himself as we watched him die. Game over.

             Most of us are familiar with the character Jigsaw from the Saw horror movie franchise. He is often quoted as chillingly asking his victims, “Would you like to play a game?” before they either die or manage to survive one of his sadistic tasks. That’s what life is all about: survival. Bartlett forces the issue out into the open with his thought-provoking play.

             The “game” is really referring to the game of life, which is also the name of a board game. Again, we can play pretend in a make-believe world for a while, imitating ourselves. The board game mimics real life, with options such as a career, college, marriage, and children. Let’s not forget one of my personal favorites either, The Sims. War-based video game Call of Duty is not in fact the real deal, the real battlefield. We don’t have multiple lives or do-overs in reality. If you can make it through each day, if you can learn how to play the real game of life, you’ll come out on top as a winner.

             Game finishes its run at the Almeida Theatre today, April 4th. Book your last minute tickets here

Photo courtesy of Keith Pattison

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