Set during the War of Independence in the United States, Pulitzer Prize winner Bruce Norris’ new play “The Low Road” traces the life and death of the rather dubious Jim Trumpett as an example for an early conman and harbinger of free market economy.
The play, whose production is Dominic Cooke’s swan song as an Artistic Director of the Royal Court, is obviously steeped in Brechtian theory of “epic theatre”: it uses all kinds of Brechtian devices such as a narrator – who in this case is the philosphical father of neoliberal economy, Adam Smith -, signboards that explain where and when the scene is set, and several distancing effects. It is essentially a reworking of Brecht’s classic “Mother Courage and her children” for the 21st century. Like the earlier play it has a rather unpleasant lead character, played by the talented Jonny Flynn (Last seen as Viola to Mark Rylance’s Olivia in “Twelfth Night”), who is only interested in his own financial gain during times of war and who we see encountering different people in the episodical structure of the play – each commented on by Adam Smith who coined the phrase of the “invisible hand that guides the market”, played by the ever efficient and amiable Bill Paterson. Like Brecht, Norris has a clear message in the play and that is ” the philosophy of neoliberal econonmy is evil”. This message is underlined by the fact that Jim Trumpett’s father is not George Washington as he claims but a common thug. Neoliberal economic philosophy, Bruce Norris seems to claim, is not in the spirit of the American founding fathers but just an off-spring of criminality disguised as the former.
Subtle it ain’t, but the play has a rich tapestry of literary, religious and visual allusions that give it a lot of depth. One example are the continuous references to honey and bees that quote a forerunner to Smith, the political economist Bernard Mandeville and his “Fable of the Bees” (1714), in which man is essentially described as evil and egoistical and needs guidance through policies. Another is Heinrich von Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhaas” with its theme of man against state (at one point there are even German soldiers asking for tax if Jim Trumpett wants to cross the border, just like in the German novella), Goya’s “The Third of May” and even Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” with Jim Trumpett sitting in Jesus Christ’s place, preaching the gospel of neoliberalism. Plus one of the most surprising uses of a deus ex machina I have ever seen. Strong acting thoughout, not only by the leads but also by Simon Paisley Day in three roles – an arrogant British officer, the disabled Poor Tim and a modern day economist – and the lovely Ellie Kendrick, last seen as a female werewolf in BBC’s “Being Human”. Slightly too long (an episode on the usefulness of political theatre could have been easily cut) and sometimes overindulgent in its political zest, it is still worthwhile seeing and offers a lot of food for thought, especially in the light of recent benefit cuts in the UK.
At the Royal Court until 11 May 2013 http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/