Another week, another brand new play arrives in London, the fourth in as many weeks, and the second successive opening to focus on female creativity and the nature of toxic masculinity. Despite being obsessed with reflections of its own image, captured in films like All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard or TV shows including Smash, which have long reflected the the scheming arrogance, male-dominated power-structures, falsity and inherent cruelty of showbusiness, the entertainment industry, it seems, had barely changed in decades. Now, in the wake of successive scandals that began with Operation Yewtree and culminated in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, an unyielding light is shining into every corner.
The consequence of all this is the beginnings of a notable shift in how the various branches of commercialised art are managed and sustained, and these industries have rarely had to respond so readily to the widespread rot and abuses of power that have filled our newspages for many months. But will it really be so easy to dismantle? Joe Penhall’s new play Mood Music which opens at The Old Vic on Wednesday is set in the music industry, and examines the complex and tricky personalities whose deep and longstanding knowledge of how the ‘business’ works means they have become adept at manipulating every system, using their power to control everyone around them.
Like Ella Hickson’s The Writer, Mood Music considers the ways in which male-dominated structures affect the creation of female art, where inspiration comes from, and the problematic border between collaboration and ownership within our existing creative environment. It asks important questions about the boundary between celebrating and recognising achievement in a more experienced creator, while not allowing your own contribution to be pushed aside, and the extent to which stars use their art and the adulation of others to fulfil a deep void in themselves.
Cat is a young female songwriter in the midst of a legal battle with middle-aged producer Bernard over the creative credit of her big song. Both insist they added the magic ingredient that made the song a hit and catapulted Cat to fame. But as the audience learns how their relationship became so acrimonious, shocking details of their working life together start to emerge as the entertainment lawyers attempt to build a case. With both parties also in therapy, embittered by their experiences, can they learn to be generous about each other’s art or will the business always win?
Penhall creates a multi-layered narrative which brings the audience into three different sets of conversation all happening simultaneously. The narrative is initially dominated by Bernard and Cat’s discussion with their therapists as they put forward their perspective, recount events and reveal what shaped their personalities, but quickly Penhall intersperses interactions with both their lawyers and occasionally restages scenes from their studio sessions. It sounds complex, but works extremely effectively in practice, allowing the play to break free of traditional scene structures, change shape and maintain a constant rhythm throughout its two-hour runtime.
And while it has plenty to say about the toxicity of the entertainment industry, where young hopefuls seemingly stand little chance of besting established figures with nothing to lose, this message is fairly subtle at first, becoming stronger and clearer as the story unfolds. This is no finger wagging piece of drama, yelling its message at the audience or deliberately exaggerating scenarios to create the right effect, but instead suggests a highly credible picture of people with nothing but their own interests to attend to.
Penhall trusts in the strength of his multifaceted central characters to essentially undo themselves, showing that while there may be minor fault on both sides, ultimately Bernard is all too real an archetype that whether you work in showbusiness, in a normal office or any other kind of workplace, you will know men who think like him. For all that, he is a fascinating creation and one that displays both the charm and enthusiasm for his work that attracts Cat to his talent in the first place, as well as the mind-blowing lack of empathy that make him entirely self-contained. And while you’re laughing at his coldness, Penhall’s trick is to let us see underneath just for a moment, not just to write him off as abominable, but to understand why. And if you understand why you can do something to change it.
Playing Bernard, Ben Chaplin is outstanding, managing to be completely engaging and utterly repellent at the same time. Careful not to muddy the focus with any suggestion of a sexual connection with Cat, Bernard sees himself as a perennial victim, delivering most of his lines with boredom, as if he cannot believe he’s in this ridiculous situation when everyone must know he wrote all the music. Chaplin offers a very clever performance that amplifies Bernard’s arrogance, selfishness and fatal lack of empathy, but without overstatement, he always feels unpleasantly real but charming enough that on more than one occasion you almost believe his version of events.
At the same time, Chaplin implies the grand delusion of a man who sees the world entirely on his own terms, and cannot conceive of anyone else’s thoughts, feelings or imagination. He suggests both strength and self-sufficiency as well as a tragic loneliness and an inability to genuinely connect to anyone else, driven by nods to his childhood experience. He is blinkered but doesn’t know it, and Chaplin gives life to one of Penhall’s key themes on the relationship between emotional damage and the need to seek control.
While Penhall’s female lead endures being patronised and pushed aside, she’s also full of human complexity that allow the audience sympathies to swing occasionally between the protagonists. It’s a cunning way to demonstrate how easily we are all manipulated by Bernard’s particular view of the facts – its not even that he twists them, he genuinely thinks his interpretation is right. Cat is given her own demons to contend with including addiction issues and frequent references to an idolised father that ensure her feeling towards Bernard remain ambiguous even well into to the legal dispute. None of this is meant to excuse Bernard’s conduct, but to demonstrate how young female behaviours are used to judge and condemn in a way they’re not for men.
Seana Kerslake gives Cat both a naievity about the industry and a determination to keep fighting for the right to own the music she created. As the play continues, Kerslake presents a complex picture of a young woman with her own emotional baggage that affects the personal and musical choices she makes, unable to control her impulse to escape and being forced into the shadows by her overbearing collaborator. We see a performer who becomes recognisably self-destructive in a way that many young artists have, but Kerslake plays this credibly as we see the effect on the relationships with those around her and a growing irritation with being controlled even by therapists and lawyers.
There is a degree of hero-worship in her response to Bernard that never entirely disappears, even when it becomes impossible to work together she still admires his talent, with Kerslake even suggesting a touch of regret that working with an idol has been so difficult. Her performance taps into some of Mood Music’s more difficult questions about whether the creation of great art is worth the pain of collaboration in an industry populated by ‘damaged’ people, and if individual brilliance is ever possible without someone to push an artist to their extremes.
The supporting cast are deliberately more anonymous and less rounded, used as reflections on the central characters or the industry that shapes them. Jemma Redgrave and Pip Carter are the therapists whose sympathetic air wanes as their clients begin to question what role they’re really playing in the power structure, while Kurt Egyiawan and Neil Stuke are the respective entertainment lawyers who try to play the system to get the best deal for their clients. Interesting to see Chaplin and Stuke in the same production having once played the same role in the 90s sitcom Game On.
On Hildegard Bechtler’s thrust stage that emulates a recording studio meets therapy session with a curtain of hanging microphones and scattered chairs, the design approach suggests both simplicity and complexity, reflecting the characters’ creative abilities but ultimately giving them nothing to hide behind. Director Roger Mitchell uses the full extent of the stage to keep the action flowing, which is particularly tricky in the rapid transitions between conversations that in the space of a line can switch to an entirely different scenario, time and place. But ultimately, Mitchell and Bechtler provide a showcase for the characters, allowing them to reveal their own failings to the audience.
Mood Music’s focus on ownership in collaboration is a fascinating and engaging examination of the power structures in the entertainment industry, and while it may seem petty for the characters break down a single song to fight over every bridge, chord or lyric, when art is for sale, personal and professional betrayal are never far behind – the overriding commercialisation of every piece of art means that ultimately the winner will always be the industry and never the creator.
Mood Music is at The Old Vic until 16 June and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.