How’s this for a premise: a man is searching for his hand. It was brutally snatched from him near-on 30 years ago, and he wants it back. A couple of trailer-trash opportunists claim to have the prize in his desperate life-long quest. The deal is due to go down in a miserable budget hotel room in the wilds of north-west America. But the merchandise might not be genuine…
It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But here’s the thing: for 90 pretty tense and often very funny minutes you’ll watch four fully-formed characters (with one exception, perhaps) navigate a plot you often won’t see coming. Meaning it’s about as far removed from a David Williamson play as you’ll get.
But let’s leave all that nastiness aside…
To the Melbourne Theatre Company’s credit, it’s a clever counter-punch. When two-bit, glutton-for-punishment critics like me start howling about being served up commercial, pedestrian, dare I say naturalistic, pretense and pratfalls the company buys in a play with a bit of shock value and genuine laughs.
Well played, MTC. Well played.
Martin McDonagh hadn’t written a play for seven-odd years. The English-born Irishman was busy making films, like his Oscar-winning short Six Shooter and Oscar-nominated feature In Bruges. Before then there’d been a series of works — two trilogies and, in 2003, acclaimed drama The Pillowman (staged by MTC in 2007) — each a dark tale of dysfunctionality.
Spokane, his first American-set play (it premiered in New York last year), isn’t as ghoulish, I’m told (I stand to be corrected). But from the first gun shot it ticks all the adults-only boxes: Violence, Horror, Course Language, Drug Use and a laundry list of Adult Themes. The only thing missing is the Nudity, save for Carmichael’s gnarled stump of a left arm.
He’s a modern-day cowboy, really. A wily, laconic, gun-totin’ picture of abject machismo hell-bent on revenge. Or at least redemption. McDonagh’s real skill here is making him pitiful: Carmichael knows the hand is useless to him now, there’s no obvious delusion in the plan, he simply wants what is rightfully his. Not just the amputated appendage but the piece of his soul severed with it. Phone conversations with his mother reveal a humanity and a comic habitualness about this decades-old routine. He is ordinary and extraordinary. And while he threatens to kill anyone standing in his way, he retains shreds of sympathy (more than they deserve, perhaps) for the hapless three caught up in the mess. By the end we’re not quite sure who’s tortured who.
Christopher Walken was Carmichael on Broadway. You can really see that. Just as you can see Colin Moody make the role his own. He’s perfectly cast here; a formidable and physical presence, a threatening tone in his flawless American drawl, but with a weather-beaten face capable of contorting to the pathos demanded.
Bert LaBonté has the unenviable role as Toby, the Black Man. Carmichael repeatedly calls him “nigger”; the New Yorker, for one, was pretty offended and that’s understandable. As a shock tactic the stark racism (and Toby offers no defence) may be effective, but to then write the character to an unflattering type — a thieving, drug-dealing thug, even if he does cry — probably blunts the message. Anyway, it’s the relationship between Toby and his half-wit girlfriend Marilyn (Nicole da Silva is terrific) and their attempts to talk their way into and out of a sticky situation that draws the most laughs.
Tyler Coppin is hotel bellboy Mervin, a naively belligerent foil to both the one-armed bandit and his double-crossers. In a mid-show monologue Choppin’s child-like pose (and American-trained voice, conveniently) comically capture a white-bred whateva-ness. It’s nicely drawn by McDonagh, the sort of profane poetry he’s now recognised for, but it does let the audience off the hook by disrupting a lively rhythm and creepy mood. Otherwise, veteran MTC director Peter Evans choreographs a well-rehersed and pitch-perfect ensemble performance.
Everyone deserves a hand, you could say (you knew it was coming).
Christina Smith’s set (she also designed the clothing) is skin-crawlingly terrific. The modular hotel room — yellowing walls, stained carpet; as garish as it is grimy — is set off-centre (naturally) and draped in a red velvet curtain. As if to give this grisly tale a vaudeville finish.
Which just about sums it up.
Curtain Call rating: B
The details: A Behanding In Spokane plays the Sumner Theatre until March 19. Tickets on the MTC website.