We often talk of ‘works of art’, but rarely its workings. In the case of theatre, we often forget how the performance itself performs. We forget its artifice, the ‘art-making’. Isabel Ion’s production of The Flick is a triumph in theatre-making. Having debuted Off-Broadway in 2013, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year, Annie Baker’s play opened at the National Theatre last year. The play follows three movie ushers – Sam (Peter Madden), Avery (Lee Simmonds) and Rose (Antonia Clarke) – as they labour amid the detritus of a failing movie theatre. As Jesse Green, reviewing for New York magazine, remarked, “No one does anything generally regarded as theatrical.” So how is Ion’s The Flick a little theatrical masterpiece?
Green is right. Nothing really happens. The action never leaves the movie theatre, and is contained amongst four cast members. On the surface, the dialogue is as mundane as the detritus. Lewis Hunt’s design presents a set strewn with burger buns and yoghurt pots, coke cans and coffee cups. Popcorn is constantly swept up as if by a tide. The set is quite literally a wasteland. The dialogue and the rubbish are closely connected: “Are you sure it’s not, like, shit?” Avery asks, confronted with a suspicious remnant of a screening. Sam’s reply is simple: “Definitely not shit.” The dialogue is like listening in on a kind of verbal garbage, conversational leftovers. Drawn-out debates about film, like naming “one great American movie”, seem more like fillers than communication.
The focus then shifts from content to performance. We are entertained not by what is said, but how it is said. The Flick was so successful because it presented the best student acting I have seen. The result was a striking naturalism. The rhythm and inflection of the dialogue was so natural that I forgot it was scripted. The mannerisms of all actors – be that biting of nails, awkward glances, frowns – meant that we witnessed the behaviour of real people, of how real people act. We cringe at awkward conversations, we are cast adrift with Avery’s alienation; we’re moved by Rose romping to ‘Gold Digger’.
But it was the interaction between the characters – the way the actors worked off one another – that produced a compelling energy. This was especially apparent in the scene between Sam and so-called Dreaming Man (Sholto Gillie). The exchange features little to no words. Gillie finishes his coke, drives the drink towards the usher and suspends it in his grip for a few drawn-out seconds. But the two actors cooperate in such a way that this moment of suspended action speaks for itself; Gillie’s acting makes us notice a man we could lose in the silence.
The fact that The Flick is set within another theatre space – the movie theatre – means that the play acknowledges its own performativity. It is these moments that are particularly dazzling. The play opens with the end scene of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) projected onto the wall behind us. We had to unscrew ourselves, turning around to view another performance. It means we were highly aware of The Flick as a spectacle, and as ourselves as spectators. The play revels in the nuts and bolts of production. Scenes transition seamlessly with films shown with a large projector in the middle of the stage. The beam of light evokes a kind of magic: it reveals wisps of smoke that seem to dance. The darkness is pierced by colourful light, blue and orange hues broken with threads of red. The way the film is produced is more alluring that the film itself.
The same can be said for the play. Unlike works by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter – famous for the same stripped dialogue – it was difficult to find meaning in the mundanity. But the production of The Flick is a masterpiece, the best piece of theatre I’ve seen made by students. So buy your tickets, take your seats, as every element of this performance is wonderful – in the true sense of the word.