Review: Cloaca By Neil Smith BBC News Online
Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey has begun his tenure as artistic director of London’s Old Vic theatre with a black comedy by a Dutch playwright who is virtually unknown outside her home country.
There is a scene in Cloaca in which avant garde theatre director Maarten (Neil Pearson) asks: “What’s this play actually about?”
He is talking rhetorically about one of his own productions, but the question will no doubt be raised by audiences who attend the first, curiously titled play of Kevin Spacey’s reign at the Old Vic.
Well, it’s about male friendship, and the fissures and fractures that build up in those friendships over time.
It’s also about their relationships with the women in their lives and their failure to understand what makes them tick.
The title means sewer in Latin, so you could also say it is about the effluent and detritus of modern life.
But if you are asking this writer what Cloaca is about, he’d say it’s about two-and-a-half hours of the most tedious drivel ever flushed up on a London stage.
The setting is a swish Amsterdam loft apartment owned by gay civil servant Pieter (Stephen Tompkinson).
You wonder how this humble bureaucrat can afford such a swanky residence, and author Maria Goos soon provides the answer.
It turns out that Pieter has helped himself to eight neglected paintings from his department’s vaults – artwork that has since quadrupled in value.
Unfortunately his employers want the pieces back – which is a problem, as Pieter has flogged four of them to the highest bidder.
Assembling three friends from college, Pieter explains his predicament. Alas, they all have troubles of their own.
Ambitious politician Jan (Hugh Bonneville) has one eye on a cabinet position and the other on his failing marriage, while Tom (Adrian Lukis) is a disbarred lawyer fresh out of rehab.
Maarten, meanwhile, has romantic hassles stemming from an illicit fling with Jan’s teenage daughter.
They are a sorry bunch all told, prone to maudlin self-pity, depression and ugly misogyny.
The latter comes to the fore in their treatment of a Russian prostitute (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) hired to strip for Jan on his birthday.
But their behaviour might be tolerable had Goos used it to mine fresh insight into the male psyche and the crushing disappointments of middle-age.
Alas, the real disappointment will be felt by those audience members who attend Cloaca expecting a theatrical event.
And while Spacey’s direction inspires impressive performances from Bonneville and Pearson, you can’t help feeling something fundamental has been lost in translation.
Time will tell if Cloaca is the shape of things to come at the Old Vic or merely an embarrassing aberration.
What cannot be denied is Spacey’s much-vaunted regime at this historic south London venue has got off to the shakiest of starts.
Cloaca runs at the Old Vic until 11 December.
Critics lukewarm on Spacey play
Theatre critics appeared less than impressed by Hollywood star Kevin Spacey’s debut as artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theatre.
He opened his tenure on Tuesday with Cloaca by Dutch playwright Maria Goos.
Cloaca – the Latin word for sewer – centres on the relationship between four male friends hitting middle-age.
Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer described the play as “a stinker”, adding it was “slick, superficial and as unappealing as its title”.
He added: “I’ve had more fun lying in gutters than sitting through this comedy.”
The play, starring Stephen Tompkinson, Neil Pearson and Hugh Bonneville, is set in a stylish Amsterdam loft apartment owned by Pieter, a local government official who has legitimately stashed away eight paintings by an obscure artist.
But when the artist’s work begins to creep up in value, his bosses decide they want them back, including the ones Pieter has sold.
His three friends rally around to try and sort out the mess Pieter has found himself in.
But some critics were harsh in their reviews of Spacey first outing at the Old Vic.
Michael Billington, in The Guardian, said Goos’ play was a “blackish, brackish comedy about four middle-aged Dutchmen behaving rather badly”.
And while he reserved some praise for Spacey’s “capable” directing, he described the play as being like a “sitcom” with “spasmodically lively moments”.
“My real problem… was that I could never believe in the past friendship of Goos’ quarrelsome quartet,” he wrote.
“There seems nothing to bind this foursome together except the demands of the dramatic situation”.
The Independent’s critic, Paul Taylor, described Cloaca as a “curiously underwhelming affair” .
But he added that the production was “punchily acted and nicely modulated”.
As celebrities and theatre critics gathered for Tuesday’s opening night, Spacey told the BBC he “could not have hoped for a better launch”.
He added: “I think it is going to be a play people recognise themselves in no matter what country they come from because it is about friendship. We all have friends.”