Carey Mulligan — currently the lead in David Hare’s new TV thriller Collateral — is not what she at first appears to be in Dennis Kelly’s one-woman play. The knowing smile is book-ended by two friendly dimples like a couple of quotation marks; the eyes exude a wry intelligence, but have a kindness to them, like a puffin’s. Her clothes suggest a moneyed, middle-class existence. But Mulligan is in fact as tough as old rope here. The accent is pure London working class and strewn with a casual profanity that’s fruitier than a packet of wine gums.
As she stands against Es Devlin’s azure stage design, the mood immediately generated is that of a business convention for which Mulligan’s character is today’s key motivational speaker. There’s tons of eye contact and chummy asides with those sitting in the stalls. She could even be running for office, but for the bare feet.
It is not long before Lyndsey Turner’s production enters what might be called its second phase. The story about how Mulligan’s character met her husband in an easyJet queue in Italy moves the evening from motivational talk to pure stand-up, as does the detail of her “drinky, druggy, slaggy” phase, which is bluer than the walls that surround her.
But there is an uneasy sense of a gathering revelation. The monologue is interrupted by a series of one-woman tableaux depicting Mulligan’s heroine at home and in scenes of pleasing domestic banality. The other people in her life here are all unseen. The reason cannot be related here without attracting the spoiler alert police. But what can be reported is that the defining life experience of this woman is the result of male violence. And the message that Mulligan’s character is here to impart (quite why the audience have turned up is never addressed) is that men are at the root of much that is bad in the world and nearly all that is violent.
Not exactly revelatory, is it? But this play arrives at a particular moment in gender politics, one when the knowledge that men behave badly is nothing new, but the apparent willingness to do something about it, is. And it’s this (hopefully) historical moment that gives this play by Kelly — co-writer of the musical Matilda and also of the National Theatre’s take on Pinocchio — real heft.
When Mulligan’s performance enters its third phase — that of testimony — this show of one-and-a-half uninterrupted hours really begins to generate its charge. Retaining the intimacy with which she relates her past sex life, and showing how she turned her straight-talking, working-class brogue to her advantage, as an award-winning maker of documentary films, she describes the harrowing event that brought her to this play’s damning conclusion about men.
She tells a story about the subject of one her films, a (male) academic who argues that men are the curse of our species.
His point, she says, is that men created society to “empower men, for men to run and tend.” But Mulligan’s alter ego disagrees. “We didn’t create society for men,” she says, soon after branding our minds with images of the violence meted out to her. “We created it to stop men.”
We have always known our societies have only achieved this objective to a very limited extent. But saying this now, and with such potency, carries real force. Next, we need a play imagining the society that finishes the job.