NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
If you had asked me, sometime before this past March, to define theater, I might have hazarded something like this: an art form including at least one actor and at least one audience member, inhabiting the same place at the same time. Even back then I would probably have thought of a few counterexamples, the Theater of the Oppressed, say, or some conceptual stuff. But the basic parameters held.
Now Im not so sure. And Ive never felt more confused than while watching What a Carve Up! a mostly very enjoyable collaboration among three English companies, the Barn Theater, the Lawrence Batley Theater and the New Wolsey Theater. It is streaming through Nov. 29, and a deluxe ticket includes a program and recipe cards mailed to your home for a sumptuous Indian meal to accompany the show. Those outside Britain have to make do with PDFs and hope they happen to have some cassia bark and paneer cubes on hand. To call What a Carve Up! a play, with or without chicken curry, well, thats merely a term of convenience.
The theaters have adapted this show from Jonathan Coes 1994 novel of the same name, a viciously funny and often just plain vicious indictment of English society in the Thatcher and Major years. A murder mystery in the blood-engorged vein of Agatha Christies And Then There Were None, Coes novel is also a triumph of postmodernism (yes, really), its cut-and-paste style seesaws among different perspectives and forms newspaper articles, book excerpts, parody, pastiche, juvenilia. Imagine a game of Clue sledgehammered to bits and then reassembled with some extremely literary glue, and youre nearly there.
Ingeniously, adapter Henry Filloux-Bennett and director Tamara Harvey have given the piece a contemporary frame, drawing shrewd parallels between the excesses of the 80s and the outrages of the present. In 1990, six members of the Winshaw family, lavishly immoral plutocrats who made the Murdochs look like the Waltons, were brutally murdered. Michael Owen (Samuel Barnett, in voice-over), a novelist tasked with writing a history of the Winshaws, stands accused. Michael dies just after.
Filloux-Bennett brings the novel into the present by creating two contemporary characters, Raymond Owen (Alfred Enoch), Michaels son, and Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button), the familys only surviving member. Both of them were babies at the time of the murders, they are now about 30. Raymond, obsessed with the case, is assembling an amateur documentary reinvestigating the crime. He intercuts his own filmed narration with various archival clips voiced by the likes of Stephen Fry, Sharon D. Clarke, Celia Imrie and Derek Jacobi and scenes from a TV interview between Josephine and a skeptical journalist (Tamzin Outhwaite) on the subject of her familys legacy, a neat visual translation of the books intertextuality.
Like the novel, the show has a jigsaw-puzzle structure, asking you to rearrange the pieces until the picture comes into view. The form is intricate, the performances canny, and if its fleeter and less brutal than the novel, it still pokes its fingers into the same social wounds, inflicted by the same political party. Raymond (in Enochs approachable and moving performance) makes this explicit late in the piece. Our hospitals are still crumbling, our bodies are still being poisoned, our spirits crushed, he says.
But even as I enjoyed the smarts and style of What a Carve Up! I couldnt understand it as theater. It doesnt suffer from what afflicts a lot of streamed productions, the despairing feeling that this thing wants to be a play and cant. In a conversation included in the shows program, Harvey mentions the conundrum of trying to tell this story in a way that isnt theater, isnt telly and isnt radio that is entirely its own thing.
Maybe What a Carve Up! is entirely its own thing. But that thing isnt theater. Its more like a true-crime podcast (think Serial or My Favorite Murder) made fictional and visual through a series of tricky, starry YouTube videos with impressive literary pedigree. Each element has been meticulously prerecorded and edited, so while almost everything about it is very good, nothing about it is live.
I have no quarrel with anything theaters do to survive and contribute and entertain during this time, especially now that Britain has entered a new lockdown. And I dont believe that the pandemic sounds some knell for traditional drama. (That is however, Josephines contention: Weve got Netflix, babes. We dont need you anymore.) Yet heres the real mystery at the heart of What a Carve Up!: not so much whodunit but why theaters in particular would do it at all.
© 2020 The New York Times Company