Closer

In retrospect, 17 was probably too young to see a play whose first act ended with the line ‘Now fuck off and die. You fucked-up slag.’ But that’s what happened and I have never forgotten it. In 1997 Closer - the second play by British writer Patrick Marber was heralded by critics, press and audiences as sensational - a description that carries not only a celebration of its merit, but also the epochal baggage of a culturally raucous and reckless 90s. In the same month that Closer finished its initial run in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium, the Royal Academy opened the group exhibition Sensation changing the face of British Contemporary Art for good. As Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Marcus Harvey and others splattered the pristine white cube of the art establishment with body fluids, formaldehyde and warm Becks, the quartet of characters in Marber’s play did something similar to the rarefied world of the stage – painting an unapologetic picture of contemporary sexual politics, accompanied by a symphony of profanities projected at one another and over the footlights into the faces of an unsuspecting crowd.
Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998

Liza Walker and Clive Owen as Alice and Dan in the original production at The National Theatre, 1997.

At the time Marber was heavily profiled in the Sundays as a leading exponent of ‘In Yer Face Theatre’ alongside Martin McDonagh and Mark Ravenhill whose poetically brutal
Leenane Trilogy and zeitgeist-y Shopping And Fucking respectively, made similarly rough theatrical waves in the late 90s. But graphic descriptions of sexual fantasy and abundant swearing aside, that label seems ill-suited to a piece of theatre that appeared to me, at the time, the epitome of a bluntly sophisticated adulthood. Just as when one character apologises for using the c-word, the other rightly replies “I’m a grown up. Cunt away.”
Marber’s four characters are Dan, an obituary writer desperate to mine some meaning from a mundane existence; Anna, a photographer, superficially robust enough for brutish romantic encounter but ultimately fallible to it; Larry, a dermatologist plagued by working class guilt and Alice, a walking mystery – all youth and desirability with an exterior of easily scrapable toughness. Their romantic configuration shifts and resolves with tragic inevitability over the two hours of the play, the scenic detritus of Vicki Mortimer’s set accruing by the back curtain like so much emotional baggage. The quadrille they dance is greased by an energy so endlessly heroic and foolhardy that it makes your head spin. “Grow old with me…” Dan begs Anna after a single meeting – “die with me...Wear a battered cardigan on the beach in Bournemouth. Marry Me.” Together they spark like flints, at the mercy of fate and the whim of the city - London in the last decade of the 20th century.
Marber depicted a universe of stylish and sexually charged independence where the froth of romance was replaced by animal desire and an unassailable quest to get exactly what you wanted when you wanted it. On the same day that I saw the West End transfer in 1998 (with a better, more polished cast than the original production) I also saw a Pinter matinee at the Donmar Warehouse and almost had sex in a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. By the time I’d seen Closer I was totally convinced that this world – however inappropriately ruinous – was my destiny.
Michael Gambon and Penelope Wilton as Jerry and Emma in Pinter's 'Betrayal', 1978.

The sophistication I was homing in on is due in great part to Marber’s own tutelage of the work of Harold Pinter, to whom the play text owes massive debts. There are formal echoes of works like Betrayal and Moonlight, in which stiffly elegant characters work to dissolve propriety with illicit encounter. It’s a world of dropped gin glasses soaking the carpet, raincoats and cigarettes on dark corners - of telephone calls. In Closer this is updated to champagne at art openings, indie music in strip clubs and sex on the Conran sofa (or in internet chat rooms as one infamous scene depicts). It is still enticingly clandestine but, in Closer, getting caught is just as pleasurable; as is the moment of confessing, or the act of bringing everything crashing down around your ears. Marber’s characters own their deceptive behaviour, accepting it as fact and presenting it to one another cold, jellied, specimen-like. At the end of Act One Larry exits the room in a dressing gown and returns fully clothed because he senses Anna is about to leave him - everyone is poised for sudden abandonment. “It’s the only way to leave” - Alice tells Dan the first time they meet – “I don’t love you anymore. Goodbye.”
This stark brevity of language and sentiment is the strongest echo of Pinter in Marber’s work; his lines have a deadly concision, shaped for poetry and impact but somehow scaffold-less, their emotional underpinnings blasted away by the lean libidinal economies of the age. But it’s very funny too. There are rarely more than two people in a scene and their various emotional chemistries begin in the language of the double act. The opening scene, in which Dan sits with Alice in a hospital waiting room after he’s peeled her of the road following a collision with a taxi, is beautiful patter - rhythmic, flirtatious and smart.
Dan: Didn’t fancy my sandwiches?
Alice: I don’t eat fish.
Dan: Why not?
Alice: Fish piss in the sea.
Dan: So do children.
Alice: I don’t eat children either. What’s your work?
Dan: I’m a...sort of journalist.
Alice: What sort?
Dan: I write obituaries.
Alice: Do you like it...in the dying business?
Dan: It’s a living.
Liza Walker and Clive Owen as Alice and Dan.

This pre-coital shorthand is best and funniest however in the play’s most notorious scene, in which Larry and Dan encounter one another in an internet chat room called LONDON FUCK, with Dan posing as a woman (pseudonym Anna). There is no talking, instead their conversation is projected onto the backdrop as they type - making Closer probably the first major play to involve contracted text speak. This is social media in its earliest, most embryonic form, operating with a language in which not everyone was fluent. When Larry poses the question “Nice arse?” and ‘Anna’ replies with a single letter “Y”, Larry counters “Becos i want 2 know.”
An interview with Marber in The Times, in 1998 relates that “despite having had an internet account for the past year, he has only been online a few times” which seems impossible to comprehend twenty years later when every moment of our lives is played out on the web. Somewhat presciently he continues, “The possibilities of lying on the net are so vast and interesting and strange. You can forge your identity.”
This theme is carried through the play via the second nature deceit of the four characters but particularly, and less salaciously, through Alice who exists so much in the eye of her beholders (Larry, Dan and also Anna who photographs her for an exhibition of portraits of strangers) that she is little more than a cypher - a composite person, never truly known. Larry and Dan both notice the scar on her leg before anything else. She gets under their skin with her gamine beauty, forward approach and relish in her job as a part time stripper, but they make little effort to see her as anything other than fantasy and surface. This is mirrored in the reality of the time too, when for every broadsheet desperate to paint Marber as a literary genius, there was a tabloid cooing over Liza Walker, the actress who originated the role of Alice. While the scope of the internet has matured exponentially over the last 20 years, it’s notable (and depressing) that the depiction of women in media hasn’t; although, for many women, reconfiguration of the self online has become a freeing, creative outlet - a way to take back control. “Lying,” Alice tells Larry “is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off. But it’s better if you do.”
She infuriates him in their second meeting (in a private room of a strip club) by insisting that her real name is “plain Jane Jones” - but for once it’s the truth. Jane Jones is the name in her jealously guarded passport whereas Alice Ayres is lifted from the memorial in Postman’s Park which commemorates ordinary people who have died saving the lives of others. There is nothing accidental about this move. For all the grand declarations of love and steely coldness in the wake of rejection, Alice is a terrified person doing her best imitation of someone brave. At the end of the play we hear that she has died, hit by a car in New York, her secrets, like her guts, finally spilling out around her, ‘She made herself up’ Dan reveals to Anna in the final scene.


Susan Hiller, Monument, 1980-1

Alice Ayres' plaque in Postman's Park, London.

Marber stated that the first moment of the play he conceived was this encounter in the strip club, where a broken hearted Larry crumbles in front of Alice, a girl he believes he knows. Both abandoned, their lovers having left them for each other, Larry attempts to reach her in the thoroughly inappropriate setting of ‘The Paradise Suite,’ while she remains emotionally behind glass, tough in the naked veneer of her stripper’s armour. It’s a drastic, dramatic and totally apt distillation of a play capturing fin de siècle romance - all overt sexual need, foiled inhibition, transaction, power and performance. It is sad too - the loneliness of it. Although that was lost on me at 17, instead it looked totally thrilling, probably because the four characters possessed all the trappings of a successful adulthood (lunch in restaurants, Elle Decoration bathrooms, confident denial) but behaved like hormonal teenagers. And that’s what I was.
Liza Walker and Neil Pearson as Alice and Larry in the 1998 West End transfer.

I wanted to be Alice. To comport some degree of enticing, youthful mystery - to be the kind of girl whose attentions might prove destructive. But that was then, before my heart had been properly broken, before I’d been bewildered by infidelity or inexplicably, repeatedly lured to it myself. For Marber the play picked at a tender emotional scab - that desperate need to do or feel something before you die. Love, passion, lust - all these things are a temporary madness, an escape from the numbing inconceivability of forever. Drawing from details of his own experience Marber said that he wrote the play after a romantically turbulent period of his early 20s. “A bit of life happened to me” he described. But I wonder which is the part that he qualified as ‘life.’ The romantic fervour and excitement? Or the comedown - the bit that happens while you’re busy making plans with someone else’s girlfriend?

Natalie Portman as Alice in Mike Nichols' film adaptation, 2004.

While re-watching Mike Nichols’ starry 2004 film adaptation (both sadder and much less funny than the stage version), as well as a blurred VHS of an early performance in the National Theatre’s archives I find myself slightly incredulous at the melodrama of it, it feels indicative of an era whose often romanticised insouciance now looks indulgent, selfish, arrogant. One half of my brain is screaming, this is NOT how people behave! But the other knows full well that this is not true. People are terrible. Age does not equal wisdom. Bodies are not logic. Desire and pain are much the same.
With an almost mathematically perfect structure and endlessly honed dialogue Marber aimed at ordering chaos into a tidy set of actions – equal and opposite like the motion of the Newton’s Cradle on Larry’s desk. As a result, Closer  endures better as a piece of writing than it does performed drama but it’s still brilliant - to witness this wrangle with a shitstorm of human emotion - like wrestling an eel or lassoing smoke. Love is always excessive, a bloody, visceral mess, but Closer is a work of art. Not quite a head made of frozen plasma or something dead, pickled in a tanked - but a raw human heart which, as Larry tells Dan, “looks like a fist wrapped in blood.”
Marc Quinn, Self, 1991.

With thanks to the National Theatre's Archives.

Comments

Wonderful piece. Best thing I've read online for ages.

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