Love, Love, Love is an amazing play #richardarmitage
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I repeat emphatically herewith that I know nothing more than any other fan about the final casting on this play. Many fans have bought tickets. Everyone should review her/his own level of willingness to accept risk in making that decision based on spotty evidence up till now. A risk that might be acceptable to me could create hardship for others. This post constitutes no argument for or against whether Armitage is doing this show. IT’S ALL SPECULATION.
I couldn’t resist, so bought a used copy of Mike Bartlett‘s play Love Love Love (2010). Bartlett is more well-known in the U.S. as the playwright of the recent, multiply award-winning King Charles III, and in the UK as the writer of the recent television series, Doctor Foster. Love, Love, Love has flown under the radar among Bartlett’s projects, although it won a UK Theatre Award for Best Play (2011) and played at the Royal Court Theatre. Whether or not Armitage does this play, I am delighted I had the opportunity to read the script.
This is a really brisk play — five characters, three acts, two and a half hours — and the playbook, anyway, is unputdownable. I sat down last night with 116 pages and when I noticed I had to go to the bathroom at page 89, I took a deep breath and crossed my legs till I finished the play. (So yeah, if you see this in the theater make sure to visit the ladies’ before the play because you will not want to get up.) The first thing I thought this morning when I woke up was that I wanted to write about it. It’s that good. I can’t help but compare it to The Crucible, with the frustrating ritardando at the beginning of the fourth act and the end of the fourth act that doesn’t really make sense in light of the rest of the play. In contrast, this play is tight — it shows rather than tells, except perhaps at the very end, and every word is important. It has a fairly coherent theme and message but it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The dialogue is very naturalistic. I wouldn’t exactly call it a comedy — or if so, it is really dark — but more a serious drama with a significant dose of black humor. Or, perhaps, a very dark parody. What we understand the play to be and what we think the play is saying, naturally, will depend heavily on how it’s staged and how these characters — none of them especially likeable — are portrayed.
I’m not going to provide a detailed plot summary in consideration of anyone who really wants to see the play while still not knowing much about it. At the center are two characters, Kenneth and Sandra, who come of age in the late 1960s. The first scene deals with the circumstances under which they met, in the apartment of Kenneth’s brother, Henry. Kenneth and Sandra marry and have two children, Jamie and Rose; the second scene portrays a vital turning point in their marital and family lives. Finally, the third scene shows them at another potential point of epiphany for various family members, set in Kenneth’s and Sandra’s early retirement.
I’ve read a few times now that the play is an indictment of the baby boomer generation — that’s one reading. I think it would be more correct to say that the play dramatizes the origins and grounds of conflict between the boomers and Generation X. It gives the slight advantage or sympathy to Generation X in the end, but it’s not like the Xers in this script come off especially positively, either. I know that reading it, I found reflections in the script of things that family members and I have actually said to each other (although my parents just missed out on being boomers and are nothing like Kenneth and Sandra and I am just a little older than Jamie and Rose) and things that I hear in the generational conflict around me all the time. Again, being purposely vague, I found myself getting really angry when I heard things from Kenneth’s mouth that I occasionally heard from my parents. At the same time, seeing myself in the position of Rose in Act Three was eerie — looking at a potential reflection of my own frustrations with the age I live in simultaneously from inside and outside was, to put it mildly, unsettling. She articulates questions and problems that I wonder about myself but the outsider perspective is crucial for evaluating whether one agrees. One thing that is interesting to think about with regard to the generational investment in this play is that although presumably Armitage will be playing Kenneth (or so we hope), he himself is a member of Jamie and Rose’s generation, almost exactly, and he has a life path with significant similarities to Rose’s. That may make him a more empathetic (cough) Kenneth, although of the two parents, Kenneth is definitely the more likeable (more about this in a second, as it points to a problem in the play for me).
Act Two is particularly enthralling. On the one hand, I can’t imagine that an actual British family would ever behave in this way (so, important potential perspectival point — what seems over the top to a British reader and thus comedic or parodic seems slightly less so to me, and thus more cynical). As the dialogue accelerates, I pressed my fist into my mouth and clenched my shoulders. Again, I don’t know how they will play this, but there is potentially here for a solid twenty minutes of a rapt audience that just can’t take their eyes off the stage. But we will also laugh because this act is just so — incredible, in the sense that the dialogue simultaneously forces the action in a particular direction, even as it seems impossible people would say these things to each other. For once, I am going to agree with Armitage, or rather, I would say, the reader can accept the “elegant absurdity” precisely because the “attack” is so “dynamic.” It doesn’t leave the reader (in this case) with any room at all to breathe.
Philosophically, I have only one issue with the play after reading it the first time, and this may be both more important to me than to other viewers and also highly dependent on how the role is played — via Sandra, the play involves a superficial critique of feminism. In a cast of characters who are all, on some level, conscious caricatures, she comes in for the most caricature. I understand that one of the things the play means intentionally to skewer is the outcome of all the ideas that seemed radical in 1967. Feminism should not be exempt from that action. None of the characters are treated sympathetically by the script so she should not be, either. At the same time, however, she is assigned more responsibility in Acts One and Three for driving the negative outcomes in this family’s life, while Kenneth is given a passive role. Even his sins seem passive. I understand that that, too, is part of Bartlett’s social critique, while I think that audiences inclined to blame feminists for the world’s ills might get a decent amount of fuel from this character.
In the end, the thing I possibly admire most about the play is that it takes an important contemporary problem in a timeless way. This happens because the play is so spare and coherent in dialogue, action, and conflict. Its script is executed entirely without padding. It never tries to be cute or complicated; there are no detours; and thus it gives rise to the strong illusion of describing things as they actually are. It never wanes in intensity and throughout I felt as present in the story as I do in my own life — something rare in my experience of the arts. It’s something I think about a lot in my own fiction writing — I struggle with endings in particular — how do I avoid taking on something that’s been written about for centuries without being trite or smarmy, without losing the audience’s attention, without descending into stereotype? The striking ending of this play makes clear that the central conflict remains unresolved. It doesn’t want to tie up its loose end. This is why I think that the reading of the play as indictment of the boomers is flawed — because as much as I end up disliking Kenneth and especially Sandra, I still can’t tell whether I should sympathize with or scream at Rose at the end. And I am a member of her generation.
Regarding Armitage — if he were to play Kenneth, this would be a significant departure from most of the roles in which all post-North & South fans have seen him up until now. He’s not a hero; he’s not active; he fails to live up to his own potential and he fails his family, repeatedly; at least one of his decisions in the play is morally reprehensible; he’s mostly “in it for himself” and doesn’t see why he shouldn’t be; he is largely unaware of how his decisions affect others — in the end, he is irresponsible. At the same time, it’s hard to call him a villain either (as the play makes clear — this is perhaps the ironic subtext of the play: that Rosie and James’ failures to launch mimic their parents’ behaviors as much as they call those behaviors into question.) I can’t venture to say what difficulties Armitage might experience with this role — but I can absolutely see the attraction.
ps For those, like me, who are still saying “how did Armitage get that thin?” I wonder if he’s trying to get wiry enough to play Kenneth, who is nineteen in the first scene.