There’s a moment about five minutes into Josh Seymour’s excellent production of Christopher Shinn’s deeply fascinating The Narcissist, when the main character Jim, a writer and political adviser, explains why the last American election was lost by the Democrats. “To win, a candidate has to understand that the average voter is angry, scared, selfish, petty, perverse probably – but most of all […] pessimistic.” His advice is to ignore all those traditional attitudes of “we will do it better…” “you can trust in us…” or (as very recently in the UK) “I – will – deliver”, because no one will believe you. And I confess I was completely swept away by this brilliant political analysis-in-a-play, with its cynicism, insight and study of power and ambition.
But Jim has a private life too, and to say it’s messy is an understatement. Every waking minute is spent juggling his temporary engagement by The Senator to get her through a series of TV debates and addresses; he’s also co-writing a book with his best friend, dealing with the end of a long-term relationship with Emma, managing a domestic battlefield between his mother, his brother and his girlfriend (most of whom don’t like each other), plus setting up some online sexual shenanigans with The Waiter (Jim is bi, and rather actively so, it would seem). With so much activity going on, it’s inevitable that he takes his eye off the ball occasionally – and he does, with at least two dramatic consequences.
To emphasise the constant interchange of conversation with all the various people in Jim’s orbit, Shinn has constructed this play to give equal weight between not only interactions with others in real life, but also text messages and phone calls. At the back of Jasmine Swan’s splendidly modernistically designed stage, are various text pods; little boxes that light up when the person housed inside them is having a text conversation with Jim. Which of us can hold their hand up and say they never text others whilst having a real-life conversation with someone else? I know I can’t. This presentation perfectly depicts the tricky balance between holding real life conversations and text chats at the same time, and how one’s tone can change instantly from one interaction to another. It shines an insightful light into the intricacy of this modern form of communication.
It also creates an immense challenge for the actor playing Jim – Harry Lloyd – who deals with the multifaceted conversations with effortless ease, being, for example, business-like with the Senator’s Aide, long-suffering with his mother, flirtatious with the waiter and pleading with his friend/co-writer all in virtually the same sentence. Mr Lloyd manages to make us (largely) identify with Jim as we accompany him through all these different types of conversational relationships, feeling his suffering, admiring his wisdom and abilities. He’s hardly ever off stage and puts in a tremendous performance.
He’s supported by an excellent cast; Claire Skinner’s Senator reminds you strongly of Hilary Clinton even though she’s clearly a different person, crisply requiring instant answers in words of 300 or less because she hasn’t time to waste, and steadfastly refusing to open up to let the electorate see the real her until Jim eventually succeeds at just slightly cracking her veneer. Caroline Gruber is excellent as Mom, pretending helplessness, picking at self-pity, weak until tragedy means she must either buckle under or survive. Paksie Vernon is great as Jim’s friend and co-writer Kara, balancing her own domestic crises with her workload, realising she’s always going to play second fiddle to him until she too finds herself a voice of assertiveness.
Stuart Thompson is also excellent as the carefully spoken Waiter, gently probing at the possibility of a sexual relationship with Jim but not standing for any nonsense from him; and Jenny Walser is also superb as the demanding, unreasonable, and petulant Cecily. There’s also great support from Simon Lennon as Jim’s wayward brother Andrew and Akshay Khanna as the Senator’s aide.
The Narcissist is an interesting, perhaps curious title for the play; you might enjoy playing “spot the narcissist” as the plot develops, although to be honest, there are at least two of them, and conceivably five or six amongst the eight-person scenario. The play is red-hot where it comes to politics, interacting with the electorate, and the pitfalls of social media on both a public and private level. It also comes with a surprisingly optimistic ending, which is a pleasant bonus. I’m not quite sure the play succeeds as well with mixing Jim’s political work with his private life. There’s one, rather long, but very important scene where Jim is at home and is visited by The Waiter for a little “home-servicing”, where the energy strangely drops at first, and I found myself hanging around waiting for my interest in the story to resume. Nothing at all wrong with the performances, or indeed the direction – the two of them chasing/retreating each other around the sofa was beautifully and funnily done – so I think the writing might just get a little bogged down there. But overall this is a fascinating and relevant modern work that has a lot to say about political and Internet discourse. Very enjoyable!
P.S. The cast seemed curiously ill-at-ease during the curtain call, as if asking each other was that all right without actually saying anything. I note that the show finished after about 2 hours 10 minutes, whereas the programme suggests it should be 2 hours 20 minutes, so I wonder if they might have an unwittingly missed a chunk of the show out! If they did, don’t worry – you got away with it!
Production photos by Johan Persson