Caragh Medlicott reviews the new play kicking off a new season at Cardiff’s The Other Room, American Nightmare by Matthew Bulgo.
Would you rather be respected or envied? This is a serious question in the dystopian world of Mathew Bulgo’s American Nightmare. A play with such a name – and the first instalment of the Other Room’s Violence series – is conjuring no illusions. American Nightmare is what it says on the tin; a theatrical exploration of a vague and smoky American future. A projection where protests rage and the cold upper classes strut about penthouses – not so different to current America, then. The set is split into two tiers by lift-style (or should it be ‘elevator-style’) doors which open and close to reveal a dapper man and woman sat looking out on the city from a skyscraper bar. Lower down on the stage is the grey and anonymous dorm room of Daria (Lowri Izzard) and Elwood (Gwydion Rhys) – two desperate ‘white trash’ enrolees of a mysterious and intense military programme. Through these two backdrops Bulgo fastens parallel stories; though the two never meet, each narrative clearly runs in tandem with the other.
Clara (Ruth Ollman) is a mysterious all-American businesswoman – everything about her exudes power and wealth. With the shiny veneer of a Fox News anchor, and a voice to match, Clara leads poor, bumbling British Greg (Christopher Gordon) down lanes of opaque and non-specific business talk. There’s a deal to be made, clearly. As Clara professes, deals don’t happen between 9-5, but between dinner and desert. Dazzled by the grandiose world of upper-class lifestyle (and more than a few sips of dirty martini) Greg – who could have quite believably wandered off the set of Made in Chelsea – is embarrassingly eager to please. Their witty rapport produces more than a few laughs (mostly at Greg’s expense). Clara teases and prods Greg with the potential for an extortionate amount of money if he agrees to lead on a building project. The catch? He must accept without knowing any of the specifics (location, motivation or scale). The real offering is clear: turn a blind eye to your moral compass and, in exchange, live in excessive luxury. As the conversation drums on, Greg’s blinkerd-ness can rankle; what good can be expected from a woman who insists that living an enviable life is the definition of ambition?
Meanwhile and far away, Daria is desperately trying to pry some conversation out of her apathetic roommate, Elwood. Neither has a clear or developed history, all we know is that this army-style basecamp – with its intense exercise routines and square meals – is better than the world out there. In here, at least, they don’t have to scavenge. Daria’s efforts to connect with Elwood (‘just being friendly is all’) are periodically interrupted by the projection of ‘the program’ (Richard Harrington). This Big Brother-esque figure barks orders and spews doctrine. Over half the people partaking in this program won’t make the final cut. While Daria worries herself about the moral dubiousness of the task they are being trained for, Elwood is popping performance-enhancing pills to try and secure his place in the final ranks. Izzard and Rhys offer accomplished performances livened by real chemistry. With convincing Southern American accents to boot, their conversation couldn’t feel further away from the sophisticated rattle of discussion unfolding in the scenes with Clara and Greg.
To the credit of director Sara Lloyd, the transition between these two setups is dynamic and engaging. Though there is an obvious contrast in the two components, they work together, never feeling removed or irrelevant to the other half. Scene changes are marked by time-lapsed shots of quintessential Americanness. The videos chosen are revealing; they switch between images of the bright lights of New York’s skyline to queues of people in fast food restaurants. Moving almost too fast to catch, this showreel encapsulates the obscure anxiety of American Nightmare. Both the play’s stories unravel at a similar pace. Though the worlds of these two narratives couldn’t be more different, Bulgo uses them to ask the same question: what is a person capable of when it really comes down to it? Whether it’s the pressure of starvation and disgrace, or opposingly, the promise of comfort and security, people will do terrible things in desperate circumstances. It’s an idea that is troubling to dwell on in the current climate of political upheaval and environmental emergency; we’re living in a time where desperate situations are increasing tenfold.
With a tightly wound plot, American Nightmare sometimes sacrifices contextual realism in order to keep the dialogue sharp. It leaves little room for explanation of the surrounding world, but the vagueness of circumstance certainly works better than unsubtle exposition. This is a play more deeply concerned with human nature, than it is with the specifics of dystopian America. Instead, Bulgo uses allegorical tales to convey the mental landscapes of his protagonists; Clara cheerily tells the story of a dog she tied to a tree and abandoned as a child. Daria remembers the shame of dumpster diving and accompanying pains of starvation. These ostensibly random tales give more authenticity to the broken society of their origin than explicit narration ever could.
American Nightmare makes no references to presidents or politics, it’s clear the real culprit here is not a person, but a system. Money and capitalism are the drivers of this hostile future; a future where the American dream has become entirely inverted. Bulgo suggests that a society founded on profit cements the separation of the average person and the elite classes. Clara, in particular, personifies this capitalist ideology – there are always more things to be obtained, more people to exploit. Even the ostensibly sweet Daria and oblivious Greg are not invulnerable to this system. American Nightmare insists that while there may be some goodness in human nature, under pressure it will inevitably default to the overriding instinct to survive at any cost. It’s a bleak statement and serious warning. America might not be the centre of the world, but in Bulgo’s future it is a symptom of capitalism reaching its limit.
American Nightmare is on at The Other Room until September 29th.
(Header image by Kirsten McTernan)
Caragh Medlicott is a Wales Arts Review senior editor.