LOCKDOWN must immediately have felt to some like a state requiring communication by other means, though perhaps not to the extent of arranging the pepperoni on a pizza into words and messages for consumers. That’s what the dysfunctional protagonist Jim has been doing in Alan Harris’s witty but disturbing new play for Theatr Clwyd. Jim has landed a job on a pizza production line as part of a government scheme to help those with ‘a mental health history’, which is one way of describing his condition, about which his supervisor, Irina, is ambivalent. Harris’s piece is metatheatre, drawing attention to the way Jim’s story is wrought in a topical way: it plays with video, camera locations, stage direction, and sets as palpable devices to engage the audience, much as we’ve all been doing via Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams and other virtual means of getting our stories across.
As a production to signal the tentative way out of a pandemic, the subject-matter of Harris’s piece is similar to The Comedy of Errors, with which the Royal Shakespeare Company returned to life at Stratford-upon-Avon on its new al fresco stage in the gardens of The Swan Theatre. That’s a play about estranged characters finding each other and being profoundly re-united, but Phillip Breen’s production (Breen trained under Terry Hands at Theatr Clwyd) is as febrile as James Grieve’s is for Harris’s bleak-black comedy. Both plays deal with the subject of madness, in which characters are confronted with the irrational and threatening behaviour of others. Shakespeare’s Antipholus of Syracuse, for example, has become depressed while fruitlessly searching for his lost mother and twin brother, and the search has skewed his very identity. Jim, in For The Grace Of You Go I, already has an identity crisis, as they say, and his failure to benefit from the pilot scheme he’s on simply exacerbates it. At a film club, Jim meets Irina’s husband Mark, a writer for military websites, who has his own identity problems. The film that night is I Hired A Contract Killer by the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, and it gives Jim an idea for an eponymous way out. His emancipation is therefore not a return to a new normality of the kind that frees the characters of The Comedy of Errors from their error-strewn comedy or that liberates Harris’s audience from the restrictions of the pandemic. Jim’s actions, for a long time, have seemingly been driven by a little man at the back of his skull who sees the world through the headlights of his host’s eyes. He also has visions of alpine-skiing to disaster. But, in what has become almost a cliché, the ‘mad’ Jim in this play is the one who speaks the most sense.
Harris views Jim’s existential plight as simply an extreme example of the one that afflicts Irina and Mark. They are on the cusp of the abyss, looking down at Jim who is looking up at them. Irina supports the scheme Jim is on but soon realises that Jim’s calligraphic skills with slices of fatty meat is slowing the production of pizzas. There are targets to be met and altruistic government ‘schemes’ do not dovetail; they don’t consider the reasons why someone like Jim is as he is or as he has turned out to be as a contributing artisan to the manufacture of artisanal discs of dough. Jim is as he is maybe because of the extenuating circumstances of his mother’s death. Irina is as she is because of her native but veiled humanity and her ambition to move and set up her own pizza-making business. Mark is Mark because he is, well, flawed American macho, who may or may not have given up writing for those websites and has to admit to Jim that he was a soldier but never killed anyone, an admission that sounds crazy only in crazy circumstances. Irina is the only one not on medication, though in her rant at Jim for his failure to meet the demands of the job and her exasperation at Mark for not sharing her rational hopes of improving their lot may well indicate a need to resort to them. Instead, Mark is disparaging even about the place in which he and Irina are cemented: Wrexham, the place that gets worse the more you explore it – allegedly. Harris’s specifics of locale, with Cardiff as its distant metropolis, don’t really add much to the drama and at times appear only to confirm that the production is Welsh and in Wales. The over-arching theme, of course, is dislocation, caused by the mini-themes of mental illness, commercial exploitation, ineffective though well-intentioned State largesse, and the precariousness of human dignity. For Harris, but maybe not for the society that sees scant evidence of amelioration, Irina becomes the solution in adapting to Jim’s weird workplace ways – his last pepperoni signature is an injunction for her to leave Mark – and urging herself to hug him (Jim) in defiance of HR strictures. Her vision is of slow pizza production without targets and accommodating the eccentricities of its artisan makers: it’s sanity as impossible idealism. Mark’s mock persona dissolves, too, as does the ‘contract’ for him to put Jim out of his misery with a pistol he might have written about for a website. It’s the pistol he turns on himself – if it is a pistol and not a replica and he’s just playacting. There’d be all the world’s time for him to remain slumped in a chair and to think about his lot. And for the audience to think about him thinking about his lot.
Almost every ingredient of Grieve’s production is outstanding, not least the way its fractured nature mirrors the world as seen by its central character, especially on Jacob Hughes’s lurid tripartite set: theatre as riveting psycho-reality, a visual concept that contrives to be both topical and perennial; and performances by Rhodri Meilir as Jim, Remy Beasley as Irina, and Darren Jeffries as Mark that crackle like a bushfire and spark with horror and humour. It’s a comedy, Jim, but not as you know it, for everything you know is lit by the headlights beamed through your eyes by the little guy in your head. The multi-media gubbins central to the presentation was reflected in the film made of the ‘live’ production and offered on line, down to the ‘virtual’ viewer entering the theatre and settling in; it was a sort of meta-metatheatre. How bold of Theatr Clwyd to have decided on the production before the pandemic arrived – it was due to be staged under ‘old normal’ conditions in Spring 2020 – and to have kept faith with it to give pandemic and lockdown a kick in the arse with a world première.
As for the pandemic, we’ll get over it more easily than we’ll surmount the societal madnesses confronted in Aan Harris’s play.
The production was filmed before an audience at Theatr Clwyd and the filmed version offered online for a limited run. It was a Theatr Clwyd production co-commissioned by Wiltshire Creative and released by Wiltshire Creative, Torch Theatre, Pontio, Theatr Hafren Taliesin Arts Centre, and Cardiff Chapter.