ALASTAIR CURTIS reviews Product at the Arcola Theatre.
‘This is edgy stuff’, film executive Leah says as she flails around, desperately attempting to contract a young starlet for the lead role in her new feature, ‘Mohammed and Me’. Leah’s script is as dubious as its title. It sees insipid Amy fall in love with a jihadi and vow to destroy Disneyland Europe on the orders of his mullah, Osama Bin Laden. Exuberant scenes of sexual violence and the wheeling out of racial stereotypes make up a film that Leah unconvincingly declares to be ‘raw’, ‘novel’ and ‘3D’ – perhaps everything but politically correct – and playwright Mark Ravenhill suggests ‘Mohammed and Me’ is representative of a film industry where crassitude pays big bucks.
Though Ravenhill himself acted in the monologue on its premiere in 2005, this new production boasts a shining performance from Olivia Poulet as Leah. Poulet approaches Leah with the same acerbic wit she is known for as long-suffering special advisor Emma Massinger in ‘The Thick of It’. She grapples about with the script in her hand, moving from Amy’s chance encounter and love affair with a ‘tall, dusky man’, later found to be a member of Al-Qaeda, to her subsequent cooperation with the fundamentalist cell that holes itself up in her apartment.
We move from the already unbelievable to the completely inconceivable: from an action cum adventure B-movie to a direct-to-DVD film best avoided. There are car chases, casual acts of self-immolation, prison breaks, a visit to a Tibetan monastery; all the stale motifs of a stale film industry are mashed and melded into one stale whole but Poulet’s Leah delivers it all with the straight-faced earnestness. And with her desperate claim that ‘Mohammed and Me’ is the best script out of the umpteenth scripts she has piled on her desk, Ravenhill leaves us wondering exactly how bad the other scripts must have been for ‘Mohammed and Me’ to appear the cream of the crop – and whether these execs have their heads screwed on right.
It only takes Ravenhill’s forty-five minute monologue to disembowel Hollywood, cutting and pouring out all its inadequacies and excesses onto the floor like a film reel pulled from its can. Satirising Hollywood is a path well worn by writers but ‘Product’ does not retrench along the same lines; Ravenhill has something new to say about the industry, or he at least says it in a different way. The monologue is punctuated by asides in which Leah stresses how the actress must conjure up ‘interior monologues’ as she darts through flames, or feel ‘Amy’s wound’ (emotional rather than physical) as she shields herself from police gunfire. Leah flashes the terms around with all the unthinkingness of a five-year-old with a new toy in the school playground; the film industry has become a tired parody of itself, Ravenhill suggests, entirely hollow, littered with platitudes and cheap tricks.
The shadow of 9/11 falls darkly across the play. Amy cannot sit on a plane next to a Muslim man without a bout of anxiety and she attacks Mohammed because she blames him for the ‘Fall of Troy’ – not the fall of the ancient Greek city but the death of her partner Troy, who died in the Twin Towers. Every Muslim is a terrorist in ‘Mohammed and Me’; the script, Ravenhill suggests, is a ‘product’ of the anti-Islamic hysteria that engulfed parts of the Western world after 9/11. This hysteria may have aged the play since its premiere – the references to Bin Laden now seem dated after his death – but sections of the industry are still regularly accused of discrimination, whether that is racism or sexism. In Leah’s film, and throughout the industry, women can only ever be young and highly-sexed, or very wise and very old. Ravenhill may labour the point, but at least it is clear: Hollywood is an industry where you’re cut if you don’t fall to type.
‘Product’ can only really be called a gentle satire, insightful but never lacerating; that said, the play is taut, outrageously funny and very careful never to stray from its intended target – the people at the top, the Hollywood executives, all scripts and Starbucks coffee, that could legitimise a film as ‘edgy’ despite (or because of) its insensitive swings at Islam. And if ‘Product’ sounds a little provocative then that’s because it is. Mark Ravenhill has long been considered a writer who walks a fine line – a delicacy ‘for the strong of stomach’, one critic suggested in 1996 – and this revival confirms, if ever such confirmation was needed, Ravenhill’s status as a major but not so young enfant terrible of post-war British theatre.
Mark Ravenhill’s most recent play ‘Show 6’ was part of the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre series and he is currently working on a new libretto for the Norwegian National Opera. Now playing at the Arcola Theatre until 23rd June is ‘Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage’, a new play by Robin Soans. Tickets are £10+ for students.
Images credited to Richard Davenport.