Neil LaBute's brilliant take on body shaming from 2001
“Art is anything I can’t do”
Note: With all the interest in the theme of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella I remembered Neil LaBute’s brilliant take on bodily perfection from 2001 filmed in 2003.
After last year’s production of the award winning Bash at the Almeida, Neil LaBute’s new play The Shape of Things, which the author directs, is a “must-see”. The play continues LaBute’s theme of what lies beneath the surface of contemporary America but here in the context of “the relationship”.
LaBute also raises the question of “What is Art?” with the current (2001) trend of installations replacing more traditional forms of art like painting and sculpture. The one problem with watching this playwright’s work is that we are always waiting for the unpleasant, the malignant twist, the vicious kick in the teeth, so we know that what we are watching on the surface is a mask. Eight-tenths of it is expended in setting up the denouement, which is where the discussion of the serious issues starts to take place. This means that only a fifth of the play can be dedicated to the questions that you will want to react to and mull over — our obsession with the surface of people, their appearance, the meaning of art.
Set on a provincial American campus, zany art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) meets geeky English literature major Adam (Paul Rudd). She seduces him, introducing him to a world of sex and intimacy he has only dreamt of. He changes his image to please her and over a period of time he becomes more popular as others see his desirability. He changes his behaviour, diet, clothing, lifestyle and even his nose. Adam’s conventional room mate Phillip (Frederick Weller) argues with Evelyn’s politics and dislikes, and the change in Adam. However, his fiancée, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) finds Adam really attractive which leads to an Adam and Jenny sexual encounter. Phillip and Evelyn retaliate with their own fling and, at Evelyn’s request, Adam agrees not to see either Phillip or Jenny again. The final scenes are shocking and I am not going to give away LaBute’s suspenseful ending here although it is hard to discuss the play in its full depth without so doing.
The dialogue is finely tuned with nothing superfluous but the action builds very slowly. There are super performances from the whole cast. Weisz’s misty eyed, “little girl lost” look belies that she is a sophisticated, independent artist. She has great stage presence. Her wardrobe too is amazing, an eclectic mix of colour, fabric, style and accessories. We see Paul Rudd as Adam gaining in confidence, surprising himself at his own luck in winning Evelyn and yet, endangering his relationship with her to try out his new pulling power. Frederick Weller’s Phillip is the unpleasant side of small town mentality, instinctively unhappy about his friend’s transformation. Gretchen Mol’s Jenny is the perfect sweet-natured pretty blonde.
The set is a clever construction of blue flaps to change scenes with windows and doors and alcoves from coffee shop to museum to Italian restaurant to doctor’s waiting room and more. One of LaBute’s directorial choices is to darken the stage at each of the almost a dozen scene changes and blast us with loud music, usually from The Smashing Pumpkins. The scene in the children’s playground in the park, with real swings where Adam and Evelyn almost fall off the hobby horses as they kiss, is particularly appealing but it is the last two scenes which really stand out.
The play runs through without an interval at two hours which is just about bearable on the Almeida’s unsprung seats in their temporary home at King’s Cross.
In the final analysis The Shape of Things is not as forceful or as violent as Bash. However, in its own way it is chilling and has much to say about a society in which an increasing number of young people suffer from anorexia and parents give their children cosmetic surgery for their sixteenth birthday. Bravo LaBute!
The Shape of Things
Written and directed by Neil LaBute
Director: Neil LaBute
Set Designer: Giles Cadle
Costume Designer: Lynette Meyer
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound Designer: Fergus O’Hare
Running Time: One hour 50 minutes without an interval
Closed 23rd June 2001 at the
Almeida at King’s Cross
Returned 18th July 2001,
Closed 4th August 2001 at the
Almeida at King’s Cross
Temporary space at Kings Cross
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the
Almeida King’s Cross
on 30th May 2001