I’m in two minds about Gloria. Which is oddly appropriate, because it seems in two minds of its own. The run finished at Hampstead yesterday, so I’m going to spoil pretty much everything there is to spoil about this play. It relies so heavily on a twist, that there are sealed pages in the programme that a member of staff will open for you at the interval. They have special knife things and everything.
The first hour of Gloria feels like a normal, conventional, American drama. It’s the morning after Gloria’s housewarming party. Gloria, we discover, is the office weirdo. It feels naturalistic in its dialogue; characters go off into drifts of language, seemingly endless monologues about nothing in particular. But in this hum are defined characters: Dean, the sweaty, hungover – because he was the only one to go to the party – assistant (Colin Morgan;) Kendra, the coffee-chugging, talk-aholic (Kae Alexander;) Ani, sweet and earnest (Ellie Kendrick;) and Miles, the over-eager intern (Bayo Gbadamosi.) And it’s nice. It’s a nice play about office politics – occasionally the all-too-recognisable Lorin (Bo Paraj) will march in and demand they keep the noise down, and Gloria (Sian Clifford) will pop up to act weird for a minute. The people feel real and the thing has a plausibility to it, if it does seem to lack a point. It moves quickly and is immaculately observed.
And it’s somewhere in the back of your head that Gloria must be significant. It’s the name of the fecking play, but when ‘Gloria happens,’ it still manages to take you completely by surprise.
Gunshots are heard from offstage. Lorin runs past. On hurries Gloria with a gun. Before you can even process this, Miles has been shot dead and Ani is on the floor, bleeding. Gloria shoots her again, dead. She spares Dean – he turned up to her party when no one else did after all – and then she shoots herself. Blood runs across the stage and down the glass. The stage goes black.
Aaaaaand the audience goes nuts. There was a buzz the like of which you rarely hear in a theatre. Everyone – and I mean everyone – was surprised. It was a massive coup, brilliantly executed and technically seamless. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, in retrospect you see the subtext, but it’s totally thrilling in the moment.
It also has the unfortunate side effect of taking such a massive left turn it makes the first act seem irrelevant.
After the interval, the play picks up seven months later. Dean is in a coffee shop, waiting to meet Kendra (who survived the shootings because she’d gone to Starbucks.) They both plan to write books about what happened – no – what they think happened to them. Later, Nan (their boss, who survived the shootings by hiding in her office) walks in, and has her own version of events.
In the third ‘act,’ we see Lorin, two years after the shootings, temping at a media company that has optioned Nan’s book. Truth and fiction collide repeatedly.
So… that’s the play. That’s what happens. And I wish I’d seen the play that happens between the scenes, because the overwhelming majority of text before the interval is mundane, drifting and ultimately irrelevant… and most of the text after the interval is exposition. We see very little of the effects being in the shootings had on these characters that are so well drawn in the first act; there are moments of high emotion, but largely we get it second hand. We hear about people, we don’t see them.
In the programme notes, it is suggested that the structure is deliberately unconventional, but it feels to me very much a traditional three act play. A three act play in the twenty-first century, sure, but it has that structure. It’s technically brilliant, and I can’t fault any of the acting (although I wish they’d maybe stop shouting… you’re at Hampstead, not the Olivier…) but it left me a bit cold. Jacobs-Jenkins notes that the piece does not resolve on a narrative level, but when there’s nothing else going on beyond technique, I wished it did. I wish there was just something in the mix that grounded it.
There’s a lot of stuff going on here. Michael Longhurst’s production overlays a Brechtian element that doesn’t seem to go far enough nor add an intriguing visual language to the text as is; before the play starts we see the (rather uncomfortable looking) crew tending to the equipment on stage, and then the office itself is chipboard with ‘edit’ scrawled on the walls, and markings on the floor to indicate walls. This is the first act, when the action is most ‘real.’ As things become less real, and we hear more things second- and third-hand, the décor becomes more real. The window of a coffee shop (Starbucks? Starbucks.) and the ultramodern, very real offices of the production company.
And this, I hasten to add, is on top of the doubling Jacobs-Jenkins calls for in his script. Most of the actors play at least two roles, Kendrick and Gbadamosi three. In doing this, and by switching our focus away from the people he created in the first act, Jacobs-Jenkins dodges the issue of examining the interior of someone who has been through a massive trauma. The story becomes about ‘who owns a story,’ which frankly, is not as interesting. It’s chooses technical intrigue over emotion. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it did remove me from the play. All I could think was ‘oh, that’s what he’s moved and that’s where that’s gone.’
I can’t work out whether the play is too clever for me to understand or whether it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. I was enjoying the play as I was experiencing it, but afterwards all I could think about was what I saw as flaws. Maybe, it’s because I saw the play it could have been (the one Jacobs-Jenkins clearly didn’t want to write, and all power to him) and I wanted to see that one instead. I wanted to see what happened to Dean after he left the coffee shop. I wanted to see Lorin after he ran away from the gunshots. I wanted an examination of what trauma does to people, and I felt like that was skirted around. That to me would have been far more interesting a play than the one I saw. BUT HEY the audience went nuts so what do I know.
Photo by Marc Brenner.