On Friday 20 October 2017, I saw Chris Thorpe’s Victory Condition at the Royal Court. This is a double hander with Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Jonjo O’Neill. it is only 55 minutes long, and a play that required the audience to listen to catch every word to make the words matter. It was an experience that works on lots of levels.
On the surface, Victory Condition looks like a Kitchen Sink drama. There’s a couple who come in from work (or a trip because they wheel in overnight bags), dress down, order Pizza, play video games and have a conversation. The conversation is not what you would expect. Maybe, because we are in a domestic space, a small flat with kitchen and a bathroom to the back we expect as a conversation about the two character’s lives. We get that, but the characters on stage are voicing the story of characters who are elsewhere. Jonjo’s character was a sniper in an unnamed sniper in a war which could have been any recent civil conflict, and Duncan-Brewster works in an office.
Throughout there is a sense that we see things through lots of different lenses, through the sniper’s binoculars, and the computer which distorts through computer-aided design. As an audience through the frame of the window into the couple’s flat.
There’s a clue to the play’s engagement with metatheatre when you take your seat. The stage is set in a scaffolding frame which lays bare the under the stage and backstage areas. As an audience, we are constantly reminded that we are in a theatre. The ending brings us back to the theatre we are in and the actors on stage as O’Neill addresses Duncan-Brewster and says “Sharon?’.
In his Guardian review, Michael Billington referred to two intercut monologues and this is a realistic description of the form because it appears as a dialogue, but clearly isn’t. A dialogue hard enough to achieve, but when the two actors are not actually talking to each other is harder to pull off because you clearly lose the sense of sparring off each other. O’Neill and Duncan-Brewster performed with such perfection that the joy was not just on the challenge of the following narrative, but was in the beautiful tones of the voices.
I really enjoy anything that is challenging and which throws me as an audience member off guard. The fantasy of the video game seems to be played out in the monologues we hear. As an audience member, I am being asked to view one thing, but think of something else. It’s like watching theatre and reading a novel at the same time. In reading the playtext, we find out that the couple have just come back from Greece. There’s no clue in what we see or hear that this is the case. I was reminded of John Berger’s comment in Ways of Seeing, “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” As much as words mattering, the combination of the words and what we see, hear, feel is very much part of being, and not knowing.