by Ettie Bailey-King
It is 1950s London- seedy, seamy and sordid. In the claustrophobic interior of ‘Ezra’s Atlantic’ we follow the schizoid ramblings, delusions and violence of five gangsters. They pop pills that make their “piss [turn] black” and their “heart stop,” wield cutlasses and antique revolvers, attempt to castrate one another and then pop out in the middle to “go and get some toffee apples.”
The whole of ‘Mojo’ takes place at fever pitch – the emotional register is shrill and constant. How the actors sustain this level of intensity beyond the first scene is beyond me – there are about a thousand “f**k, Johnny, something’s happened!” moments and yet each one is played with extraordinary subtlety.
The mode of the play is allegation. The dangerous drama that surrounds them is always external - a sinister figure called “Mr Ross” looms over the play, never seen, and the defining murder of the play is established entirely through report. Though the body in question sits on stage, neatly sawn in half and placed in two rubbish bins – it is tantalisingly out of sight and seems to mock the idea of knowing anything in this strange, frenzied play.
It is a masculine play, with an all-male cast and some pretty ‘male’ dialogue, with a tasteful smattering of “minge” and “cock” that befits the locker-room atmosphere of Ezra’s bar. At times the dialogue can be baffling and deadening in equal parts – which only serves to highlight how utterly brilliant the acting is.
Davies, Hughes, Stodel, Hayes, and Drury are phenomenally talented. Lines like, “if you know somebody who knows somebody who knows the King, sooner or later you’ll get a taste of the king’s cock” don’t exactly roll off the tongue.
The druggie dialogue is also painfully realistic. The mad crescendo of a conversation about boots- “they’re made of baby f**king buckskin, hand-stitched by elves… something so young it can’t walk… unborn ponies! Straight from the womb!” makes you feel like another pilled-up mobster collapsed on the sofa, watching the drama unfold.
Yet the problem with ‘Mojo’ is the energy it packs into every encounter. A sort of dramatic exhaustion descends over the audience – though not, it has to be said, over the turbo-charged cast – as the pressure builds and builds and builds.
There is something surgical about Butterworth’s writing – someone with an expert eye could probably unpick the brilliance of it and decode the microscopic politics of each exchange. But for the humble observer, it’s quite tough going.
In fact, it’s a relief when the end is in sight. The five gangsters are holed up in their bar, with only cake and toffee apples to eat - like a particularly grim children’s party – waiting for a murderous ambush. Even in this scene of terminal decline – Hitler’s bunker with sequins on the wall – the characters turn through the same weird, repetitious circles. They continue to uneasily negotiate public space, asking for “a word- in private” just as their lives and deaths are theatrically splayed open. Just as events are closing down, the visual side of things really picks up.
Only in the second act do Durham Student Theatre (DST) have as much fun with the set as they could have done from the beginning, and it’s a shame that the setting and the era aren’t made the most of. This casts a retrospective pall over the first half, with its sparse furnishings and limited movement. A less severe set might have softened the edges of the Beckettian dialogue in its awkward early stages.
What is stunning about this play comes entirely from the giftedness and graft of its actors. Ben Anscombe does the best job of playing a mute, tied-up, silver-suited singer hanging from a rafter that you’re likely to see. Serious commendations are due for the fact that in over two hours, nobody’s cockney accent even strayed towards caricature. But vowels and violence aside, Jez Butterworth’s play is a challenging one.
DST have created something deeply impressive, but it feels a little like a bomb that has been defused rather than detonated. Sensational to watch, but not quite the spectacle it could be.
Photograph: Hui Tsao