For a while now I've been wondering why I go to the theatre. I think it was a Twitter hashtag or meme that started it. "I go to the theatre because _" and you fill in the blank. Only I don't know what my blank is. My love for the theatre is so instinctive, so reflexive, I find it hard to examine.
Do I go for entertainment? Or am I searching for some kind of insight into the human condition? I suspect it's both. Insight is nothing if it's dull or patronising. And if it's just entertainment for entertainment's sake, well, [insert derogatory comment about most Saturday evening television shows here].
And then The Motherf**cker with the Hat turns up. A transfer from Broadway that I knew very little about but, in one show, crystallises what I love so much about theatre.
Its premise is simple but layered with complexity. Jackie (Ricardo Chavira) is out on parole and back in the arms of the woman he's loved since he was a teenager, Veronica (Flor De Liz Perez). And this time he's going to make a go of it. He's given up the drug dealing for a job as a security guard and he's got a sponsor to help with his addictions. This time he's going to get it right.
Only, on a dime, his life spins once more into chaos. For there, on the table in his girlfriend's apartment, is a man's hat. And it's not his. Nope. This hat belongs to the motherf**cker in the flat below. So what's it doing in Veronica's apartment?
The trigger is pulled and Jackie's rage, jealousy, anger and insecurity spiral out of control. And instead it's left to his sponsor Ralph (Alec Newman), who's having issues of his own with his unhappy wife Victoria (Nathalie Armin), and his estranged cousin Julio (Yul Vazquez), to desperately keep him from doing something bad, from violating his parole and ending up back where he started.
At the core of this story is this - what behaviour do you accept in others around you, and what do you reject? What can you forgive - and when is it finally too much? And this is a play that raises questions but also plucks at the heartstrings. Because by the end, it will have held your heart in its hands - and then broken it.
Let's just say this straight out the gate - the writing in this play is simply awesome. Stephen Adly Guirgis has crafted such a tightly weaved plot with twists and revelations - funny as well as dramatic - tumbling out throughout this play. It never ends. The snippets, the little glimpses into the characters' pasts and fears continue right up to the end. It's beautiful.
And the writing is brought to life by a stunningly good cast. My, they are superb. Ricardo Chavira shines as Jackie in his London theatre stage debut, bringing flesh to the bones of this unlucky everyday guy who, fresh out of jail, is just trying to start over.
It's Yul Vazquez as Cousin Julio who walks off with the audience's heart though. Nominated for a Tony for his performance in this role on Broadway, Yul gives such a feisty but tender portrayal as Jackie's eccentric gay cousin.
It could have been a minefield of clichés and, in other hands, an excuse for some pretty hammy acting. But not here. Cousin Julio has been added to bring most of the laughs, yes, but there is such a strong sense of tribal loyalty and brotherly love in this performance that it only enriches the production rather than overshadows it.
And all of these terrific ingredients are gently whipped together by director Indhu Rubasingham into an impressive production that lays bare the trials and tribulations of these damaged souls against a gritty backdrop of the relentless and unforgiving New York.
And that's why I love this play. Because it's about everything and nothing. It's just a day in the lives of five people in New York yet it forces you to question yourself, to examine your own moral code. What would you have done if you were Jackie? And where do you draw the line?
And isn't that what theatre is all about?
National Theatre, London to August 20, 2015
1.l-r FLOR DE LIZ PEREZ (Veronica) & RICARDO CHAVIRA (Jackie) in The Motherf**ker with the Hat, National Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet.
2.l-r RICARDO CHAVIRA (Jackie) & YUL VAZQUEZ (Julio) in The Motherf**ker with the Hat, National Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet.
3.YUL VAZQUEZ (Julio) in The Motherf**ker with the Hat, National Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet.
4.l-r ALEC NEWMAN (Ralph) & NATALIE ARMIN (Victoria) in The Motherf**ker with the Hat, National Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet.