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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
AUNT DAN AND LEMON
at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs

AN INFINITE CAPACITY FOR HORROR
By MATT WOLF

  Jane Horrocks/Ph: Keith Pattison

The house lights remain up at the start of Dominic Cooke's  startling Royal Court revival of Aunt Dan and Lemon, the third time Wallace Shawn's  play has received a separate London production, starting with its world premiere at this same address in 1985. And well things might begin brightly for a play that starts by introducing us to a seemingly agreeable theatrical confidante in Jane Horrocks's  poshly spoken Leonora, aka Lemon: a sickly woman, seated alone with little but her various juices for company, who welcomes us into her apparently sunny orbit. Only later do the lights dim and sensibly so, as Shawn's brilliant if flawed play shifts irreversibly to black.  

The English would seem to have an avidity for a play that traffics in an American-accented slide into fascistic psychosis, as the articulate but actually none-too-intelligent Lemon - she reminds us of her intellectual limitations on several occasions - falls under the spell of her parents' infinitely charismatic, and opinionated, friend Danielle, aka Aunt Dan (Lorraine Ashbourne). But though the final image of Aunt Dan is of her achieving a very real union, albeit at the price of her own health, Lemon would seem to be seeing out her days alone. Those days, in fact, are more numerous than they were in 1985, when Kathryn Pogson played Lemon - said in the script to have been born in 1960 - as someone mid-20s whereas Horrocks pitches the same character as a middle-aged woman age 49. Heaven only knows what will happen when this play is revived 20 or 30 years from now.  

Lemon is an altogether astonishing authorial creation: the sort of self-evident, severely blinkered rationalist - which is to say that her warped reasoning makes evident sense at least to her - whose modern-day inheritors walk the globe in an age in which Sarah Palin can have got anywhere near the White House. And listening to Lemon deride the cult of compassion that leads her to commend the Nazis for at least having been good at their job, one can't help but do a mental skip a decade or two ahead to George W. and some of his folksier ways of being, set against his apparent absence of ready compassion when faced with hurricanes, terrorist attacks, or the like. 

In some ways, the play is a period piece: what audiences these days, even in Britain, fly any kind of knowledgeable flag about Henry Kissinger, whom Aunt Dan adores and whose encomia on his behalf get crucially misinterpreted by Lemon? In this production more than ever, the ceaselessly self-analytical Lemon  would seem to have arrived at her present, severely arrested emotional state by way of a reaction to Danielle's contrastingly flagrant, even intimidating, sexual candor.

Luckily, Cooke's ace in the hole is the bravura turn in the trickier of the play's two defining title roles of Ashbourne, who is the first of the four Aunt Dans in my experience to communicate the devouring physicality of the part alongside her full-throttle mental acumen. Chicly coiffed, in garments that in another era might have marked her out as a protegee of Isadora Duncan, Ashbourne sails through whatever line troubles she may have to seize hold of what is actually an underwritten role: Aunt Dan's relationship with Lemon's English mother and American father has to be taken more or less on faith, one key face-off notwithstanding. 

Horrocks is excellent, too, in a role I've rarely seen fail, even if she couldn't be further from the shattering image of terminal illness presented by Glenne Headly when this same play was seen in a problematic revival at the Almeida Theatre a decade or so ago. (Miranda Richardson, concurrently at the Court in Shawn's latest theatrical phantasmagoria, Grasses of A Thousand Colours, was Aunt Dan in that one.) At first, one worries that Horrocks is merely trying on accents, as befits the onetime stage and screen star of Little Voice, and her eyes open so wide that  when we glimpse the child version of Lemon sucking her thumb, the sight is entirely redundant.  

But as if to awaken us to a memory play of a gatheringly nightmarish sort, Horrocks gives us Lemon as near-infant, then as emotionally infantilized adult, stopping along the way to join Aunt Dan as dual voyeurs to a murderous scenario of sexual cavorting gone wrong, Scarlett Johnson's scarily alluring Mindy - one of Aunt Dan's fast and loose set of, uh, friends - the triumph of an uneven supporting cast. (No one will ever be better as the high-octane, bleating father than was Shawn himself in the play's first go-round.) One never feels a thesis about the collapse on two fronts of morality, whether public or private, being pushed too far. Instead, one is mesmerised by a leading actress in Horrocks who grabs the full, scintillatingly subversive measure of the long closing speech and its hymn to humankind's capacity for horror. By that time, the house lights have once again come up, Lemon continues to nurse those tonics,and one fact is clear. There is a little bit of Lemon in all of us.  

 


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