Photo by Debra Dipaolo
Aside from the catchy title, what could possibly account for the popularity of Mark Ravenhills bleakly amusing parable about the degradation imposed (and self-imposed) upon a circle of clueless drug addicts in Londons East End? Since its 1996 premiere at that citys Royal Court Theatre, the play has received productions in New York, San Francisco, Australia, Germany, Holland, Greece, Scandinavia, Lithuania, Portugal, Israel and Poland. The biggest surprise is that its taken so long to get to L.A.
This works appeal can be partly explained by its shock value, by its spectacle of characters in their late teens and early 20s removing their clothes and engaging in acts of rimming and sodomy. Which only demonstrates the lengths to which a playwright must now go in order to sell a Marxist critique. (No small irony there.) For Shopping and Fucking simply recapitulates the cynical theme crooned many times by a famous leftist philosopher and Berlin cabaret MC: Money makes the world go round. This may not be the worlds most original idea, but neither is it a felony to employ it as a philosophical premise in the theater, especially when the jokes it engenders pay off as frequently as they do here.
Its also evident, however, that this is an early work by a young writer trying to Say It All. S&F is a kind of sojourn through the minds and hearts of the playwrights whom Ravenhill most admires. From a gritty, sardonic realism that smacks of any number of stage and film works by Mike Leigh, the writing careens into Genet-like psychodrama via a pit stop at an oasis of early Harold Pinter. I dont know if Ravenhill ever saw Lyle Kesslers Orphans, but it sure looks that way when a wealthy mentor keeps giving quasi-comedic life lessons to the maligned and abused street urchins hes taken under his wing.
The play opens and closes with the poverty-drenched image of waifs Robbie (Melik Malkasian) and Lulu (Mariam Parris) trying to spoon-feed their sweet beanpole pal Mark (Andrew Ableson) the contents of a takeout dinner. At the top of the story, delirious from scag, Mark pukes their offering onto the grubby couch. By plays end, after a Candide-like odyssey in 14 scenes, hes capable of taking a bite. Therein is expressed the plays fragile hope of redemption.
In the first of three interweaving stories, Mark tries to break free of his dependence on drugs and romance, with an independence that defies the essence of his very tender personality. Spouting 12-step dogma, he walks out on a devastated Robbie, seeking what Mark describes as an interaction thats sexual but not personal, or at least not needy. (Fat chance.)
This drives Mark to a bedsit above a penny arcade, where he has a liaison with a teenage prostitute named Gary (Steven Klein). As the slot machines downstairs chink out their currency, Mark and Gary blithely negotiate the terms of their physical transaction as though theyre discussing a tune-up at Pep Boys.
I suppose what Id like, Mark says, what Id really like is to lick your arse.
That all? Gary replies, nonchalant.
Yes, Mark affirms. Thats all.
Right, says Gary. We can settle up now.
When they start haggling over the price, one can hear the echoes of Monty Python:
How much do you want?/Hundred./A hundred pounds? No Im sorry./All right, if its just licking, fifty./Look, I can give you twenty./ Twenty! What dyou expect for twenty?/Its all Ive got. Ive got to keep ten for the taxi.
Gary finally delivers a coup de grâce in a spin that embodies the plays twisted affections: Theres a bloke, right? Rich bloke, big house. Wants me to live with him. So tell me why I should let you lick my arse?
Mark, growing ever more pathetic as his resolve to keep an emotional distance wilts, becomes smitten with yet incapable of satisfying Gary the gormless masochist. As compensation for his aching heart, Mark winds up with a natty suit from Harvey Nichols, paid for (unwittingly) by the rich bloke. Chink chink chink go the slot machines.
Meanwhile, in a sardonically ludicrous duet, Lulu and Robbie find themselves juggling cell phones, forced by Brian (Michael James Reed), their Pinteresque godfather (in every sense of that word), into working triple shifts of phone sex to pay for a drug deal gone bad.
These two stories converge in a third when Mark brings Gary home to Robbie and Lulu. The result is a session of psychosexual storytelling for money, of course (enter Jean Genet) a study in degradation that literally cuts to the core of Garys need to be brutalized, and a psychodrama that strains against the more naturalistic episodes of the plays first half.
Somehow, Michael Donald Edwards sleek staging, punctuated with techno-pop transitions (sound design by Robby Maclean), smoothes out the seams of Ravenhills stylistically mismatched wallpaper. Among the other unifiers are Michael Mosers circus-inspired costumes and R. Bradford Rabes spare grunge set: The decrepit couch and a pair of upstage curtain sheets hung on a wire pretty much do the job, while every inch of the theaters walls and columns is plastered with a pastiche of graffitied posters. None of this would stand a chance, however, if it werent for the actors devastatingly convincing portrayals, the surgical precision of their whiny south-of-England dialects, and their idiosyncratically yobbish style and faces.
Like the plays of Ravenhills Royal Court Theatre predecessors Edward Bond and John Osborne, S&F is a reaction to the inexorable march of privatization thats leading England (and a good part of the Western world) forward to the social hierarchy of the 17th century. David Hares and Caryl Churchills plays reacted against the social brutalities inflicted by Margaret Thatchers political and economic agendas, against the growing gulf between the rich and the poor. S&F reflects the Tony Blair era, and its hard to find much difference. Which partly explains why the play feels a bit like old news.
True, that a bejeweled thug like Brian should weep like a baby at both a Bach cello suite and The Lion King is a very nice touch. And that his drug dealing pays for his kids cello lessons provides a pleasingly lucid view of the world economy.
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What are the very first few words in the Bible? Brian roars to Robbie and Lulu, who are quaking at his feet.
In the beginning? Lulu tentatively squeaks.
Eventually, Brian proffers the correct opening sentence: Get the money first.
In many ways, this scene embodies the plays multifarious quality: rimshot funny, acutely menacing, and somewhat ingenuous in pawning off its truisms as profundities.