Review: In the Republic of Happiness

Hannah Greenstreet 17 December 2012

In the Republic of Happiness

Royal Court Theatre, London, until 19 January 2013

Think there’s ‘nothing political’ about Christmas? Martin Crimp’s new play sets out to expose such comfortably apolitical assumptions through biting satire that makes for often hilarious, if uncomfortable and sometimes baffling, viewing.

The play has three parts. The first, entitled “Destruction of the Family”, opens with a recognisable, albeit dysfunctional, family Christmas, complete with squabbling teenage daughters and a grandad suffering from dementia, who repeatedly insists that he is “neither senile…nor impotent”. Then Uncle Bob arrives to penetrate their collective fiction, passing on a message from his wife Madeleine in a comic litany of hate. The walls disintegrate, just one instance of the wonderful set design of Miriam Buether, and with them the naturalism. The actors cast off their previous characters and recite a choreopoem on “The Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual”, satirising various illusory and increasingly ridiculous entitlements ranging from “The freedom to write the script of my own life” to “The freedom to look good and live forever”. The final part goes back to Bob and Madeleine, with another magical scene change, now in the alarmingly dystopian “Republic of Happiness”.

The middle section, as well as being the most theatrically innovative, contains the funniest lines. The humour often works through accumulation and bathos designed to discomfort, “…My burning urethra, my chronic-weight loss, diminished responsibility, stretch-marks, broken nose and sex-addiction…My abusive father. My manipulative and abusive cat.”

Under Dominic Cooke’s direction, the strong cast works outstandingly as an ensemble. Particularly notable was the infectious energy of Ellie Kendrick’s performance. The music, composed by Roald van Oosten and directed by James Fortune, is another strength. The songs are surprisingly catchy, although, with lyrics that rhyme “child abduction” with “human right to liposuction”, you might not want to find yourself singing along.

Ultimately though, despite the many outstanding features of this production, the play left me confused (and I still cannot work out whether this was the desired effect). Life in “The Republic of Happiness” seems just as hollow and scripted as in the preceding two parts, leading one to wonder whether Crimp’s satire has a point. There is a sense, from Bob’s refrain of “it’s deeper than that”, that there is something beneath the surface of this satire of superficiality that cannot or will not be expressed.

Nonetheless, In the Republic of Happiness is a thought-provoking and innovative production. Especially recommended if you are feeling in need of a heavy dose of cynicism after too much festive cheer.

Hannah Greenstreet