* I tend to think that any detailed discussion of this play could be considered to contain spoilers, therefore I advise visitors to consider this before reading on.
‘There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said no. But somehow we missed it.’ – Tom Stoppard
If somebody had paused Friday night’s performance of Declan Greene’s Pompeii, L.A. half way through and asked for my opinion so far, I would have had difficulty responding. I’m sure I would have stammered out some garbled combination of ‘it’s really interesting / I have no idea what’s happening / I just don’t know‘ before collapsing into a nervous heap. Hyperbole aside, I would certainly have been flummoxed by the question. This is a play that sends out so many tendrils in its early stages that the audience’s predominate state is one of disorientation. When the loose ends finally snap off and the personal tale at the heart of the performance is laid (rather literally) bare, the entire play is instantly reconfigured in our memories. In that moment, we get it.
This journey from narrative discord to harmony is both beguiling and beautifully nuanced. Its broad pop-cultural palette includes the exploitation of child stars, the global financial crisis, climate change, social disharmony and, at its core, the rich metaphorical link between the two titular cities – as Greene and director Matthew Lutton describe in the program notes, the notion that Western civilisation is ‘growing too large to support its own weight’. The grim warnings of Greg Stone’s eerie chat show host encapsulate the play’s inherent fear: the notion that ‘everything gets too big. Then it ends.’
Heat, expansion, disaster. The Icarus myth. Greene has built a sobering and deeply fascinating story from this collage of scientific and social issues. His prose shifts from poetic to savage in an instant; a talent he showcased with devastating power in the award-winning Moth. He’s frighteningly good, and, in my opinion, the most interesting facet of his writing is his ability to translate an episodically simple story into a highly complex work. Using temporal displacement to disrupt the reception of the play, Greene drives its key concerns forcefully home.
The most unexpected and impressive feature of Pompeii, L.A. is the question of whose reality we are observing. The answer is not revealed until a good two-thirds of the action has played out, and the uncertainty is preserved through gender transitions and by playing upon audience expectations and psychology. Preoccupied with the action, and the process of unravelling the temporal mysteries of the play, it is easy to overlook David Harrison’s bewildered script prompter and the layered characterisation that places him at the epicentre of the piece. The act of reconceptualising him as central to the action is what initiates the process of synthesis – or, as Ricoeur would describe it, the configurational dimension; the building of significant wholes from scattered temporal events.
Yet, Pompeii, L.A. is more sophisticated than a good story told backwards. The inability for much of the piece to identify any character as the nexus of events makes the configurational process so much more engrossing than simply ironing out the play’s disrupted temporality. Greene and Lutton’s pacing is so clever; information is revealed at such perfect intervals. The precision of the thing is truly remarkable. The play’s very first transition enables us to see that we have been thrust into an uncertain, non-linear space. The presence of Judy Garland and the sudden intrusion of medical language and processes into the scene suggest that we are peering into a single, traumatised psyche. The proposition of actors playing actors is always going to be replete with interpretive fodder, but in Greene’s case, this move is no mere gimmick. It is supported right across the diverse subject matter and, above all, by the courageous decision to preserve the transparency of the artifice. Characters change costume in plain sight, sets are built slowly and deliberately before the audience. A dead man stands, disentangles himself from his hospital tubes, and walks away. We sit dumbly, watching somebody else’s dream happen in front of us. It’s startling, often confusing, and powerfully unsettling.
It is not just the order of events but their duration that is notable. Just as running in dreams is near impossible, the audience is frequently faced with discomfortingly expanded events with no option to focus our attention elsewhere. The car crash therefore becomes both event and metaphor. When the vehicle finally makes an appearance, we are taken through an elongated aftermath of collision – the taking of photographs, removal of personal items, the sweeping away of broken glass. The actors are also the technicians, picking through the wreckage of their world like coroners performing their own autopsies. Heat and expansion. Entropy. They cannot undo what is happening because it has already happened. Just as it was with Moth, this is the tragedy of Pompeii, L.A.
Powerlessness is a strong theme in this work. Any text that separates the linear order of events from the pattern of their reveal casts new light on the causal relationships operating within it. The characters in Pompeii, L.A. have found themselves without options; whether due to their own actions or those of others. Lurking beneath the question of ‘whose reality?’ is the question of when it became reality. Stoppard’s Guildenstern believed in a moment separating possibility from actuality: a space within which the causal chain could be broken. Pompeii, L.A. paints that moment as ungraspable. Future disasters have already been set in motion, even if we cannot yet conceive of them. Everything starts small and gets big. Then it ends.