Sam Troughton as Larry
Nina Toussaint-White as Anna
in Closer at the Lyric Hammersmith 2022
Photo by Marc Brenner
Closer – Footnotes (*)
The Footnotes to our episode on Closer include more on the chronology of the scenes in the play, Marber’s clever manipulation of time and space in the staging, the significance of the Newton’s Cradle prop, and the resonance of the title.
Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.
As we noted in our conversation, in a preface to the published text Patrick Marber sets out a specitic timetable for the twelve scenes of the play. He also includes a specific note saying that these are for information only and “should not be included in any production programme or design”. Of course we can imagine that he had it all carefully mapped out; in fact he said that he had laid out cards for each scene that he could then rearrange.
As we’re watching, however, we don’t know exactly what the chronology is. What we see is a series of snapshots of these lives at varying intervals of time, spread over four and a half years in all. What is the effect of the play being structured this way?
Marber does give us clues in the dialogue as we go along, but we are also forced to work out for ourselves how much time we think has passed and what has happened in the meantime. Starting with who is with whom? We try to deduce what stage the relationship is now at, and what the emotional tenor of the relationship may be. In trying to evaluate this we bring some preconceptions of what the patterns of relationships are – are they in the first flush, stuck in the middle, or in the final throws. Of course as Clare pointed out, we actually only ever see moments at the beginning or ending of a relationship – moments of crisis.
It’s not unlike Pinter’s play Betrayal in this regard. Although in Pinter’s play the chronology of scenes of marriage and infidelity famously ran backwards over time, we are similarly given snapshots at moments in time and we have to interpret where they are and what has gone on in between. It’s very mentally engaging, as well as pacy, and the condensed timeframe also has a thematic intent – to underline the changing and fickle nature of these characters’ desires and their relationships.
These snapshot scenes are not unlike the images or scenes we store in our memory. Apparently Mike Nichols, who directed the film of Closer, thought that the whole play could be seen as a sequence of retrospective memories of the characters, leading up to Alice’s death. All of which affirms the malleable nature of time.
Time and Space
Closer is not only distinctive for the chronology of the scenes, but also for the way that Marber plays so cleverly with time and space within scenes. He uses different parts of the stage to enact scenes that are happening at the same time but in different locations, and to run scenes that happen in the same location but at different times.
In the first of these, in Act 1 scene 6, we see Dan telling Alice he’s leaving her, and at the same time on another part of the stage, we see Anna telling Larry that she’s leaving him for Dan. The two scenes are interwoven; we jump between the respective locations and dialogues. They fit together like two complementary, mirror pieces of the whole story. What does this effect add to what we are witnessing? We watch with a knowing horror as the inevitable unfolds, attuned to every nuance of the way the news is being delivered and received for each couple. Somehow witnessing them simultaneously side-by-side seems to augment the pain that we feel for everyone involved.
The second example is Act 2 Scene 8, where Marber cleverly intercuts between two scenes set in the same location at different times: Anna sits with Dan at a restaurant telling him about meeting Larry earlier to sign the divorce papers, and then us seeing the meeting earlier the same day at the same restaurant. Larry and Dan slip in and out from each of the scenes, with Anna remaining in place at the table. It’s so seamlessly done that we have no trouble with these two scenes from two different times going on simultaneously, at one point with both men even on the stage from different times.
The effect of this staging is to further signal that it is Anna who is in the middle, the fulcrum connecting the two ongoing relationships. The fluid movement and rhythm of both of these scenes also underlines the merry-go-round nature of their connected affairs.
It was fascinating to observe that the film version of Closer could not achieve the same effect in their presenting these scenes. Cutting from one couple to the other on screen is the not same as witnessing them simultaneously on the stage. Something of the interconnectedness and emotional power was lost. Testament to Marber’s theatrical skill in playing with time and space.
We first see a Newton’s Cradle as a prop on Dan’s desk in scene three when Dan trolls Larry online. It appears again on Larry’s desk in his office in scene 10 when Dan visits Larry and asks him to give Anna back to him. Dan also discovers in this scene that Larry has met Alice. It is at this point that Dan notices the Newton’s Cradle on Larry’s desk and asks him where he got it. It was “a present” Larry says. We can make the connection that Alice has likely given both Dan and Larry this same present, or perhaps she’s even given Larry the one she originally gave to Dan. Either way at this point the cradle symbolizes the contention between the two rivals.
The Newton’s Cradle is of course a deliberate choice of symbol. The balls are linked in a confined array. They perpetually knock into each other, displacing another ball, and then coming back to reciprocate the impact, as of course these characters do in their ricocheting relationships. Marber admitted the cradle was a “sort of symbol of the play – albeit an ironic and tacky one”. I think it’s a nice touch.
The play’s title
The symbol of the Newton’s Cradle would certainly suggest that the title of the play is ironic – despite being close together the balls bounce away from each other. There are countless examples of the characters failing to be genuinely closer to each other. We talked during our conversation about the disjunct between love and sex that prevails, for example, which the women particularly identify. Alice observes bitterly that men “spend a lifetime fucking and never know how to make love”, Anna is equally dismissive: “They’re ‘in love’…but have none…They love the way we make them feel but not us. They love dreams.” Dan echoes the solipsism of their disconnect from reality: “We live as we dream, alone.”
For most of the play the couples fail to understand each other accurately, even when supposedly so closely involved. Larry doesn’t understand how Anna could leave him: “we’re happy aren’t we?”, to which Anna replies “Yes”. And Dan tells Alice that he “will always love her”, even as he leaves her. The potential dissonances between them is beautifully highlighted in the overlapping scene when Anna is leaving Larry and Dan is leaving Alice. Larry asks Anna why she’s choosing Dan, to which she responds “because he needs me”. At the same time Dan has just explained to Alice that the reason he’s in love with Anna is that she “doesn’t need me”. Their assumptions do not turn out to be the best foundation for success in their relationship.
There is a sense throughout the play that the characters are struggling to make sense of how things happen to them. This feeling of lack of control is underlined by the fact that many of the key moments happen to them by chance. It was chance that Dan met Alice when she had her accident; that Dan happened to remove the crusts on his sandwich that one day only; that Larry meets the real Anna at the Aquarium; that Larry finds Alice at the strip club; and finally that Alice is run over in New York. All of this suggests a randomness to life, a world that escapes meaning. This is the sense that Marber himself identified when he said that the play “is always aspiring to get closer to some kind of definitive truth about things but knows it can’t.” So the title of the play really is ironic.
Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull was a disaster on its opening night in St Petersburg in 1896. The unsettling blend of comedy and pathos that confused the first critics and audience were subsequently recognised as seminal in the evolution of modern drama.
I’m delighted to welcome back playwright and professor, Dan Rebellato, to talk about Chekhov and his timeless play.
Patrick Marber’s play Closer depicts a merry-go-round of metropolitan relationships powered by sex and betrayal. Its clever and candid dissection of the destructive power of sexual desire hit a contemporary nerve when it premiered in 1997.
Clare Lizzimore, director of a new production at the Lyric Hammersmith, joins me to explore how the play’s unflinching sexual politics has aged twenty-five years later.
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