Attempts on Her Life, National Theatre, London

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On the way out of Attempts on Her Life I overheard a student discussing the production. “I’m sure they missed out the scene with the answering machines,” she said. “I love that scene!” Ten years on, and even Martin Crimp’s ultra-contemporary, postmodern piece has become a classic to the extent that devotees grieve when the text is changed.

And it is, in some respects, dated. It first opened in March 1997. Tony Blair was on the verge of being elected; Princess Diana was still alive; the war in Bosnia loomed large. Mobile phones, iPods and blogs had yet to exert their full grip and the Twin Towers were still standing. Wisely, Katie Mitchell’s production doesn’t attempt to update it with new gadgetry, but pins it in its time, so that its restless, splintered, slippery shape gives voice to the obsessions of the dying millennium.

But much of what it presents is still apposite and disturbing. Crimp’s piece is composed of “17 scenarios” each dealing with the absent character of Anne. It has no narrative, no structure, no stage directions and no characters – on the page, the lines float, unattributed. The voices talk about Anne, creating scenarios for her – was she a victim, a terrorist, a suicidal artist, a pornographic star, a bicycling gardener in a woolly hat or a glamorous, blonde actress in a tasteful movie? She resists definition: she becomes the spirit of an age in which conventional ideas of narrative, plot and fixed identity seem inadequate. The piece is partly about how to write a play without the comfort of those certainties. It is also a caustic attack on a society obsessed with image, technology and packaging painful truths into superficial, bite-sized clichés.

It’s very clever and disturbingly true. The difficulty watching it, though, is that its very nature makes it unsatisfying and repetitive. Mitchell’s production doesn’t overcome this, though it would be hard to better her witty, super-slick staging, which fills the Lyttelton stage with cameras, screens and microphones around which the versatile actors scurry. They create pop videos, advertisements, documentaries and art works, conduct one dialogue as a cop-show interrogation and another as a mischievously funny parody of Late Review, and finally disappear below the stage, still talking, still getting nowhere.
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