Royal Court, London SW1
Martin Crimp’s enigmatic portrait of a dysfunctional relationship leaves you sorting the real from the imagined. And although The City is an elusive puzzle of a play, the sense persists that the answers to the questions it poses — why are Clair (Hattie Morahan) and Chris (Benedict Cumberbatch) so unhappy? How much of what they tell each other is true? What is the nature of the trauma they are suffering? — are tantalisingly close.
The play begins with the audaciously mundane line: “How was your day?” Clair’s answer to Chris’s question — she met a stranger at Waterloo Station called Mohamed who told her of the torture that he had suffered — sets the strange tone for a series of dialogues with which Crimp builds his play and Katie Mitchell her tense production.
What we know about Clair and Chris — that they live, according to Vicky Mortimer’s minimalist design, in a smart townhouse; that Chris is unemployed; that Clair is sexually unsatisfied — is never enough to explain their talkative but uncommunicative relationship.
Answers lie in the play’s strangest elements — the sociopathic nurse (Amanda Hale) who dreams of atrocity, and the eerie little girl (on the press night Matilda Castrey) who might be the couple’s daughter, but probably is not.
The play’s phantom off-stage characters echo Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Except that Crimp is not only reflecting a couple’s condition, but a wider, destructive reality from which they cannot hide.
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