For all its political associations, the romance and the primacy that society suggests we give it in our lives, the human heart ‘looks like a fist wrapped in blood.’ This searingly anatomical description is spat out by a character who has had theirs broken in Patrick Marber’s anti-love play Closer, a modern classic about the messy dramas between four people that still hangs heavy 25 years after it premiered. Very much situated in its 1990s context – a setting the Lyric Hammersmith retains for its latest staging – the play nonetheless retains a contemporary power not only in its brutal commentary about relationships, lust and the availability of desire, but also in its melancholy (rather than cynical) perspective on the emptiness, absence and even the insufficiency of love between people who believe it should give their lives the meaning and purpose they look for others to supply.
Opening in 1997, Closer is a play that could not be written now, or certainly not in quite the same way. At the most surface level, a key plot device in Act One relies on Internet Chat Rooms that could only exist in a world before Twitter and Instagram. There is still comedy mileage in bored writer Dan posing as a woman called ‘Anna’ to tease dermatologist Larry, little knowing that his online entertainment will set in motion events that will culminate in his own heartbreak. Catfishing still goes on, of course, but a Closer relocated to the Tinder generation would lose the desperation of confined characters who would now have unlimited access to multiple partners and an unashamed openness about fulfilling their desires – perhaps rather than talking about them.
Likewise, Larry’s visit to the strip club in Act Two couldn’t work so well in the age of Internet porn where he could fire up his laptop at home to access any number of live or pre-recorded women to suit his tastes. The ‘service’ Alice claims to provide is readily available in a global marketplace while Alice herself could disappear into that world and never be found again, not even by chance. Human needs and behaviours may not have changed, but the mechanics of meeting and diverting them, upon which the plot of Closer rests, certainly have.
The other noticeable element of the play that will keep it firmly in the 1990s is its language and the way in which men speak to and about its women. The vocabulary of Closer is highly sexualised, graphically so in places, and while we are no more modest than we were when this was written, the tendency of male characters to use words like ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ as derogatory insults in everyday conversation feels far less palatable now, particularly when asking the audience to continue to invest in the life of the group. Larry, Dan, Anna and Alice have complexity in which they are their desires and more than that, but Closer noticeably represents the male gaze and especially the fickleness of male desire when seen in the context of our twenty-first-century attitudes to and descriptions of sex. Even as early as 2004 – notably the year that Mike Nichols film version was released – Tina Fey used Mean Girls to question the use of this vocabulary as a tool of oppression and disrespect to dehumanise women, so it is this language that also dates Closer.
As do the incidences of male violence – a rather unpleasant underbelly that Marber employs to prevent us from rooting for anyone too much. Larry’s temper and toxicity are openly repellent, felt not only in his lurid pursuit of sex at any cost, even cheating on his wife of only a few months, but also in the tone of his bullying rages when he argues with her about her own infidelity. Meanwhile, Dan’s more manipulative coercion is equally difficult to tolerate and a contemporary-set version of Closer could not justify either woman still wanting to be with these men. And while it wasn’t acceptable even in the 90s and Marber puts his male characters through considerable emotional pain to balance out their actions, it is harder to write these kinds of male characters now without properly punishing them or drawing attention to their behaviours and the effects on the women who endure it.
But Closer still has a hold, its convoluted entanglements and the easy pain the foursome cause themselves and each other has a universality that 25-years hasn’t dimmed. These are characters unafraid to show their ugliest sides in the selfish pursuit of love, a love, that Marber shows, is fleeting and uncertain. As Anna, Alice, Dan and Larry vacillate back and forth for 2.5 hours and several years, the cumulative effect is poisonous rather than romantic, that the concept of being with the right or wrong person is made to seem ludicrously inconsequential in the face of almost everybody’s fatal indecision and the primacy they give to their own happiness.
That Alice is the only character who can truly distinguish between love and lust, between true self-knowledge and momentary desire is pointed, tapping into the questions of identity and awareness that run beneath the surface of the play. Marber builds an essential dichotomy into the heart of Closer, showing three of his creations using their real names to play roles in their own lives, looking to the relationship they’ve just started and just lost to complete something that their creative endeavours or jobs cannot entirely fulfill. They are dreamers believing happiness is within their grasp if only they are with a different person, except they are as unfaithful to their romantic ideals as they eventually are to all their partners. Only Alice is the person whose entire identity is falsified but whose emotions and intentions are genuine, knows instinctively when she’s in love, when she is being used and when to leave. And there is a fascinating tragedy in that which makes Closer worth reviving and examining anew, even within the changing context of a quarter of a century.
Clare Lizzimore’s production for the Lyric Hammersmith understands that far better than the Donmar’s unsatisfactory version in 2015 which never quite got to grips with the different layers within the play. And while the 90s setting draws attention to itself only through a changed response to the text, the simplicity of Lizzimore’s vision allows the emotional beats and deceptions of the play to come to the fore. Enhanced by live music between scenes which help to shape the mood, there is a forlorn sense of longing in Act One in which the protagonists are ready to fall in love and find themselves in the wrong relationships. Lizzimore excavates the intensity in these declarations of passion and in the sometimes violent consequences of infidelity, building a quiet hollowness within these entanglements that makes the characters lack of fulfillment palpable as they selfishly scramble for someone or something else, often with remarkably little guilt about the pain they cause. The overlapping scenes of Dan leaving Alice while Larry and Anna leave one another are particularly sharp, manifesting for the audience the physical and poignant impression of a third person in each relationship.
That all becomes far darker in Act Two as a series of nastier encounters take place and again the layered scene in which Anna confesses her indiscretion to Dan while simultaneously bargaining with Larry earlier in the day is gripping. You feel the tone shift in Lizzimore’s production from people acting from what they believe is love to using sex and possession to coerce and control. There is something sour and uncomfortably sordid about it that leaves a distinct impression at the end of the show, and Lizzimore balances the tonal shifts across the play well arriving at a place of ruin and ambiguity where no one has anything left to fight for but that it could all just start again.
It is a shame then, that the interpretation of Alice is not quite right and for much of the play performer Ella Hunt struggles to make her feel like a real person or give her the same flawed tangibility as the other characters. The show is still in preview and it is a difficult role, one that is cheeky and enigmatic, never quite giving a straight answer but alluring and sympathetic at the same time. Yet, somehow the complicated reality of Alice and her emotional life isn’t claiming its place in the play. She feels like a sketch, a work in progress, even a plot device around which the characters move, the otherness that makes her so compelling and desirable not yet making her seem as credible as her fellows. Some of that is about pitch, relaxing the performance a little in Act One, although Hunt has already found a valuable and considered detachment for her scenes in Act Two where we see a matured version of Alice.
Nine Toussaint-White has found a brilliantly conflicted Anna, given far more agency in the drama than some versions allow. A sophisticated creation offering a complete contrast to Alice, Anna offers the play’s most astute commentary in noting how the men create a fantasy idea of them but never come close to the true all-knowing love they claim to seek. Anna is also honest about the semi-failure of both men to truly satisfy her desires – while on the receiving end of their barbs – and while she instigates her own relationship destruction with poor choices and by wavering between Dan and Larry, there is an underlying brittleness in Toussaint-White’s performance that makes Anna frustratingly sympathetic, deserving of more than either man can offer if only she could see her own value.
Larry is a difficult character to pitch, a slave to his own desires which he never attempts to control and with a violent temper that may not erupt physically but indicates a low estimation of women and the service role they should play in his life. As a doctor, there is a tendency to play him as rather suave for all that but Sam Troughton makes Larry much earthier, a man with few redeeming features and almost reveling in his physical desires, his arrogance and delight in using his power to torture others. There are moments of tenderness, of deep pain beneath the surface which Troughton captures well but it is interesting to see a full throttle version of Larry that doesn’t hide behind the manner of his profession and instead sees him at his most selfish and spiteful.
Jack Farthing’s Dan is one of the best interpretations of recent years, a bundle of contradictions that take some time to reveal themselves to the audience. Dan is overly romantic, dying for love every few scenes but never sorry for the pain he causes others in pursuing his emotional satisfaction. He doesn’t have the same overt desires as Larry but is no less dangerous for it and Farthing is incredibly at ease with all the things that Dan is and wants to be. There is depth to the slow burn of his career failure and a grasping at happiness that is desperately destructive for all concerned. Still, for all Dan’s demands for empathy and a consuming singularity in the love he receives from his partners, Farthing shows how little he considers others and quite how noxious a seemingly quiet, poetic man can be when his own desires are thwarted.
Staged simply as Marber directs, Soutra Gilmour creates the representative spaces that cover several years of action and transport the drama from living rooms and parks to the London Aquarium, an art gallery and Larry’s various offices. All of this is underscored by Arun Ghosh’s music performed by Radhika Aggarwal which rarely intrudes but adds energy to the production by marking the swirling emotional currents. Not quite a perfect version of Closer but a compelling one. If the heart really just looks like a fist wrapped in blood then why, Lizzimore’s production asks, does it hurt so much?