Simon Jenner in West Sussex
4 September 2022
Harry Lloyd’s Jim stands on the abyss of his smartphone downstage on Jasmine Swan’s metallic revolve set where – like the opening of Posh – steely cubicles above light up those he’s being texted or tortured by. Crashing out of Democrat political strategy after 2016 isn’t an option, history says. It wants Jim back.
Harry Lloyd and Stuart Thompson. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Indeed, The Narcissist is ‘a kind of history play’ Christopher Shinn remarks drolly of its delayed premiere, set in autumn 2017 but scheduled at the Chichester’s Minerva for 2020. As we gear for 2024 or 2028 as this updated text projects, it’s history shoving us back to the future.
Trump redux, shiveringly, but plenty closer to home. Shinn asks what death-wish drives voters to elect nihilists. More than ‘a reasonable leader with the common sense to manage the country well – someone sharp and reasonably entertaining.’ But he’s just outlined how after 2008, everything changed. ‘There isn’t any faith things can change much. It’s a backlash of despair, and apathy.’ That’s what he tells the titular narcissist Senator (Claire Skinner) with a glimmer of connection.
Jim’s negotiating genius juggles demands of his mother, brother, his brother’s lover, Skinner’s Senator all Whitehouse-eyed, Jim’s new lover, his best friend with whom he’s writing a literary farewell to hope, Hunter S. Thompson-style, of how sanity lost in 2016: all want a piece of his transactional brilliance. All while his offstage marriage dissolves.
Shinn’s are climate plays. No global warming but a weather of warm political apathy when a little beyond there’s a storm. Just who The Narcissist might be (not just Skinner) is growled behind our row. ‘They’re all narcissists.’
No, but in a way that’s the point. When every audacity of liberal hope proved illusory, just another enabler of corporations, Americans after 2008 are – and this is heretical – cynical, pessimistic: watching bankers party while they get even poorer.
Akshay Khanna, Claire Skinner and Harry Lloyd. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Shinn’s 2015 Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar reminded us how often polemical plays in America need institutions to coil their dialectic up like springs. If you want an argument, there’s a university, or in Shinn’s Against (Almeida, 2017) a vast corporation to bounce off: a coup de foudre from God’s voice to go where violence is. “In a time of Trump, a Bowling for Columbine of the mind” I wrote smugly. Still, later that month after Charlottesville, Trump defended fascists: “There are good people on both sides.”
Jim’s a fixer, enabling politicians to appear human and communicate; he’s always on his phone. He’s like the rogue CEO character in Against after the wheels come off, but seduced into believing you can strap them back on.
Here though we confront a world where our online history’s fixed, teen-made statements crash you forever in a world making its mind up say eight years before you enter the U.S. primaries. That Jim’s belief technology is “just keeping the circulation of desire going” doesn’t affect him too is hubris.
Directed by Josh Seymour with fleet elan, this two-hour-15-with-interval play brooks no longeurs. Swan’s revolve set piles everything from office to packed-up home, and lights up like a Miriam Buether homage: neon-strip outlines everywhere, though, clinically phased by Jess Bernberg. Amelia Jane Hankin’s costumes range from a vividly green suit for the slightest character to hippy-homestead-style settling on anyone moving an inch out of New York. Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s sound is clinically struck on texts. Aesthetically we’re bubbled in the chilly warmth of a mobile screen.
The Narcissist is gripping in a polemical manner like no other Shinn play. There’s thrilling confrontations and more truth about recent American politics than any drama I’ve seen. Lloyd’s superb as the shadowed Jim, his face etched with living a life forever taking leave.
His new lover Stuart Thompson (Waiter) is excellent too, fleshed out as a socialist with more connections in all senses than he’d like to admit. The finest scene takes place between them before the interval, with a denouement propelling us through the pacier second half.
By then we’ve seen Jim’s brother Andrew (hapless, weakly fixated as realised by Simon Lennon) enter rehab but mostly trying to detoxify from vampiric girlfriend Cecily who demands support for her fashion design. Jenny Walser does what she can with a one-note ball of angsty ambition and provides a plot-point in the second half I don’t quite believe. Caroline Gruber’s Mom (bar her understandable hostility to Cecily) enjoys a slither of agency late on while Akshay Khanna (Aide) enjoys little other than that notable green suit – Khanna you feel could have done with being written in more effectively: especially since Skinner’s Senator has the hots for him.
Harry Lloyd as Jim. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Usual Shinn quibbles – sketchy characters beyond the central one or two – still remains a criticism. And dense emotional material is semaphored out like spokes from Jim, just as in Ben Whishaw’s CEO in Against or the mute titular character in Teddy Ferrara. While, say, Bernard Shaw cheerfully dispensed with emotion altogether for argument, he always had a sense of theatre that Shinn lacks. At times Shinn seems to feel he should bring in baggage without exploring it. There’s stronger connection with Paksie Vernon’s excellent Kara, best friend and brief lover – just because Vernon and Lloyd ensure that relationship vibrantly flinches back to warmth from abandonment.
By then another plot-point’s arrived I don’t quite believe. But though Skinner’s given a rather identikit Senator she makes her glow, investing something of what Shinn has us believe Jim’s seduced by. And apart from that climactic first-half scene, Jim’s flayed credo in the second should be taken out and studied. It’s personal and the more personal Shinn is – you feel he’s stung this time – the better. Jim’s not just pessimistic but as the Senator notes, almost nihilistic.
Shinn’s condemnation of what Adorno/Horkheimer stigmatized as ‘to choose and choose always the same’ or Marcuse as ‘one-dimensional man’ here gets a vivid workout. Jim extends dating App metaphors to the way people relate, simultaneously flirting with 30 others: “Most people aren’t using the App to fall in love – deep down they don’t believe in love. What they believe in is the perpetual cycle of arousal and promise and failure…” Amusing ourselves to death.
It’s here Shinn’s language conveys the fire the Senator identifies in Jim, touching the dramatist’s tongue. “And knowledge is always stronger than hope… And desire is stronger than love. And destruction is stronger than creation. And we know this – because we have bodies … dying slowly, on a planet that is dying quickly.” There’s flashes of greatness here; it’s why we go back and you should too.
Though we’re given a more hopeful, rounded ending than Shinn often provides (they can leak away), it’s something Jim says earlier that makes at least the character’s end believable, if not always plot. You come away wondering what Shinn might write if tick box ‘oughts’ didn’t stick in his invention: vivifying functional characters because it’s expected but not earned. Or exploring emotional consequences on those characters just 15 minutes longer.