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Review - House of Shades - Absolutely hair-raising

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

Rated 🍯🍯🍯🍯

Actors of the play, House of Shares, on a stage bow to the audience after a live performance
Cast of House of Shades including Anne-Marie Duff bow to the audience after a matinee performance at the Almeida Theatre, London

This is not so much a review as a reflection about the big questions explored in this play. Spoilers abound.

The consequences of conflict are dramatically different in chosen relationships vis-à-vis blood relationships.

In the first place, the likelihood of conflict in a relationship you choose for yourself (a friend, a mentor, a girlfriend, a spouse) is much lower than that in a blood relationship because you're unlikely to choose someone whose worldview and philosophy differ drastically from your own. In the second place, blood relationships are not dissolvable, or at least not as easily, as chosen relationships are. You can decide to be estranged from your parent or sibling for the rest of your life, and yet, they will always occupy their own special corner in your mind. Irrespective of how toxic that lingering memory, bond or attachment might feel, irrespective of how you learn to forget about it, it is always indelibly there, ready to be retrieved the second a specific trigger or stimulus comes along. The relationship between Jack and his father Alastair is a striking testament to this fact. The scene in which Jack speaks to Alaistair's corpse brought the Bee to the chilling realisation that the silence one may desire in their mind, the closure or conclusion that one might think they will find upon death, is an unachievable thing. A blood relative dies but the imprint of that troubled relationship on one's soul never does. It haunts us lifelong.

So what is it about blood relationships that make it so hard to cut oneself off?

Is there a biological programming in our genes that makes us love (for want of a better word) our parents even when we hate them? Like a disease that just clings to one's body no matter what one does, blood relationships leave their residue in one's mind permanently. It is comforting to think that at some point, when the person dies, the disease will also die, you will be rid of that parasite in your head once and for all, and there finally will be silence. Because death has a special finality associated with it. But sometimes it only gets louder after their death.

Is it that somehow parents are unforgivable in the way that we are able to forgive others that we choose to bring into our lives, and if so, why is it that parents to meet a much higher standard or ideal to earn our forgiveness? Is it just a reflection of the fact that familiarity breeds contempt, so that we hold the most contempt for our parents and siblings with whom we spend the most important years of our lives? What does it take to really move on, the Bee wonders.

But Jack does move on. How does he accomplish that?

Present the Bee with a character like Jack who

a) felt sorry for his mum's troubled childhood and the fact that she never received any affection from her husband,

b) resented his father for being a bad husband to his mum,

c) never saw any special ambition or success in the father to respect or admire,

d) was eventually driven to feeling spooked and unsettled when said mum tries to elicit the romantic attention and affection she so desires from him - her own son, and

e) witnesses his mum's murder of his sister's premature baby and the indirect murder of his sister herself,

and the Bee would predict that this boy would grow up with deep, unsettled issues that impede his ability to trust people in general and women in particular. Because he feels betrayed by both his father and mother (for completely different reasons); because he is never able to trust either one; because he never finds reason to respect either one; and because he never feels understood by either one.

How does he then come to trust people and sustain a beautiful, happy, and even 'normal' relationship with Helen?How does a boy like that turn out to not only be a decent husband to Helen (or at least we don't see any obvious signs of patriarchy or trouble in their marriage) but also a successful businessman? Constance is a striking exemplar of what happens to an adult when you rob them of a nice childhood. Did Jack achieve success despite his childhood or because of it?

The Bee has a theory, or maybe just a hunch, that Agnes has a lot more to do with Jack's success than Jack is wiling to give her credit for. She brought joy, frivolity and levity into his childhood. Absent Agnes, his repository of joyous childhood memories would have been entirely depleted by the between- and within-parent issues he witnessed growing up.

Nobody ever disintegrates and disappears when they die

The lady who "lays out" corpses in preparation for burial, and who appears each time a character in the play dies, maintains the morbid sentiment that a lifetime of lived and felt experiences can amount to absolutely nothing. You die, you just disappear into the ground, you become soil. Inconsequential. But that's just not true, is it? Nobody ever really dies. Generations ahead will continue to feel the implications of their life choices, their decisions, their thoughts, their feelings, their accomplishments, their failures, their existence. In a colossal number of direct and indirect ways.

Was Jack's interest in communism and Tory ideology an escape?

In his childhood, Jack resented his father for not being a good husband to Constance. Theatre Bee wonders if Jack's proclivity towards communism in his teen years, and Tory ideology later, was motivated by the desire to distance his persona from his father's as much as possible, and perhaps even to spite his father. That might explain how he turns out to be a doting husband and a Tory. A big opposite of his father in the two big defining aspects of his father's character. Or was he just mesmerised by Helen, a strong feminist character that seemed to be everything his mother wasn't? Either way, Jack is at odds with the predictions of the imprinting theory in psychology (please forgive the Bee if it does not apply the theory correctly here. Comments/corrections are welcome.)

On the political polemics in the play, the Bee is reminded of Michael Sandel's meritocracy theory.

In his book, 'The Tyranny of Merit', Sandel argues that the rise of meritocracy - where merit is all that is 'supposed' to matter and those who're not making it big are either not meritorious enough or not hardworking enough, which is precisely the sentiment that backed the Tory thinking of the 80s - can cause an excessive pride or hubris among the winners, and humiliation and demoralisation among the losers, both of whom tend to underplay the role of luck or chance in determining outcomes. As the social safety net atrophies slowly over the 80s and 90s, we see this happen in the Webber family. Jack succeeds professionally and attributes a large part of it to his own resilience and perseverance (the Bee was particularly irked by his 10th anniversary speech at his company party), underplaying the possibility that he just happened upon the right circumstances in ways that Eddie, Agnes' husband, wasn't fortunate enough to do.

But ideology is simply a matter of convenience for most people!

People switch ideologies when it suits them, don't they? When Jack builds his business empire and wants to benefit from cheap foreign labour, he conveniently switches his allegiance to Labour. When Natalie, Agnes' daughter, struggles to make ends meet and resents the foreigners for depressing wages and displacing UK workers, she shockingly reveals she is going to be voting Tory. The Bee had predicted a switch of allegiances of this kind at some point in the play and was pleased to see the characters do it. The Bee just wishes they had been able to recognise that it was a matter of convenience that led them to choose allegiances all along. Instead, Jack pretends it's not entirely his convenience, but his intent to be this large workforce employer helping thousands of people of lesser means from less developed countries, that makes him support Labour. What a grand delusion, what self-aggrandisement. Or perfectly natural and acceptable self-serving tendencies that are just manifestations of a biological phenomenon, the human selfish gene à la Richard Dawkins?

The play was extremely thought provoking and the Bee loved intensive stimulation. Although the show's content warning does tell you there is going to be a few disturbing elements:

This production contains the graphic depiction of an abortion that involves blood, depiction of a heart attack, references to domestic violence, the smoking of herbal cigarettes, latex balloons, strobe and flashing lights

The Bee notes that the disturbing bits were really disturbing. When the Bee was leaving, it saw a woman visibly distressed, possibly about to faint. People were gathering around her to help. The Bee does not know if it was because of the show or something else, but it is not at all beyond the realm of possibility that the scene on stage could cause a human to feel sick or dizzy.

In all, the Bee loved the play. True, the play has a lot going on simultaneously - the father-son issues, the mother-son issues, the mother-daughter drama, the brother-sister drama, the Tory-Labour conflict, the themes about death, with all surreal elements of the ghosts from the past and walking dead and whatnot - but life's like that. It's messy, complicated, and things don't need to come to a nice, logical, neatly tied-up conclusion. The Bee liked it as it felt like quite a realistic description of very real, very human, life.

Four stars.

Watched 22 May 2022 at the Almeida Theatre, London.


P.S. Theatre Bee has been featured among the 15 best UK Theatre Blogs and Websites to Follow in 2022 on Feedspot! Thank you all so much!

P.P.S. If you want a cheap, great value seat with a decent view at Almeida theatre, E25 is a good option. Theatre Bee booked this seat, usually advertised as restricted view and sold for cheap (just £10 for this show) but the view was not bad at all. There is a pillar that obstructs the right edge of the stage, so you don't immediately see actors making their entrance if they're coming in from there, but other than that, it did not affect the Bee's experience of the play at all. Here is a view:

View from stalls seat E25 at the Almeida Theatre, London
View from Theatre Bee's stalls seat E25 at the Almeida Theatre, London

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27 mag 2022


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