I've had a glimmer of a crush on Joe Penhall for years now; I can't remember what started it, but it certainly flared when I commissioned him to interview Sam Shepard in 2006. Which was just as well, because he also infuriated me over that piece: in an outrageous display of egoism he insisted on being put up in the Chelsea Hotel (as far as I could tell, a budget hotel only by the reckoning of those who cheerfully smash guitars worth several hundred pounds night after night), possibly even on flying above economy class, making his expense claim insane. But it was worth it, because the piece itself was perfection, whip-sharp, passionate and illuminating.
The embers of that crush glow whenever I hear Giddy Stratospheres by the Long Blondes (conversations about work with Penhall invariably veered to music at some point; the Chelsea Hotel incident heightened my suspicion that there's a frustrated rock star locked inside that man), and they were fanned again when I saw Haunted Child listed in the Royal Court's winter season. I have vivid snapshots in my head of Blue/Orange and particularly Some Voices, which I caught up with in the beautiful revival that was at the Young Vic in 2004, so had high hopes for this new one, hopes I started dismantling once the middling reviews came out.
I finally saw Haunted Child a few nights ago, and have mixed feelings about it myself. On the one hand, I thought whole swathes of it were ridiculous. There's far too much exposition, hammering home a point that is abundantly clear throughout: that Douglas, the errant father who returns to his family home bedraggled and missing his four front teeth, has been brainwashed by a freakish quasi-religious cult. The acting was weirdly uneven: Sophie Okonedo as the abandoned wife and Ben Daniels as the deluded evangelist were exhilaratingly good together, her thrumming with tension, him brightly intense, but with the child actor frequently slipped off-key. And I was never quite sure what was happening with the child, whether he was really as disturbed as his mother, Julie, kept telling us.
But on the other hand, I was undeniably gripped by it. The line that sank a hook into me came almost at the beginning: when the child, Thomas, says to his mother he wouldn't mind dying to be with his (presumed dead) father, because: “if we're just going to die anyway, what's the point?” It's every parent's terror, surely, to have your child confront you with that question. Would I even know how to answer it? Julie, I note, doesn't answer it: she brushes it away, smothers it in a cuddle. What a terrible abdication of responsibility on her part.
What interests me about the play is that, on the surface, Julie's rationalism, pragmatism, acceptance that life is a muddle and sometimes the best you can do is simply get by, seems like the “right” way to live. But while it allows her to puncture Douglas's fevered and increasingly ridiculous visions of a more spiritual future with delicious wit, her approach to life never comes across as altogether satisfactory, either. Why should we just get on with the way things are? Why shouldn't we strain and fight for something other than a job in an office and fixing up the house? Shouldn't there be more to life? What, exactly, is the point?
As Matt Trueman identifies in his review, it's not so much an existential crisis that engorges this couple as a political one: they're trapped in a (capitalist, selfish, materialistic, aggressive, Conservative) society, which has built up over decades, centuries, perhaps (as my husband would argue) since man evolved, yet is neither healthy nor beneficial, except perhaps for the very few. Something else needs to be built, and I don't think Penhall believes for a moment that spirituality provides either succour or solutions: religion, or at least Christianity, has always tolerated, created excuses for, materialism and the consequent social inequality. The picture of spirituality Penhall offers us might be deliberately extreme to the point of appearing stupid, but to a non-believer, how far is it really from the tenets of more conventional and accepted religions? Over Christmas in Cyprus with my parents, my Mum (who believes in something, a force in the universe, but not the God described in the Bible) related with some disgust the intricate rules about what Greek Orthodox followers are allowed to eat in the several weeks before Christmas and Easter: meat on these days, fish on these days, abstinence of this and that on those days. From that to drinking a bucket of salt water to purify the soul, as indoctrinated Douglas does, isn't such a great leap, if you ask me.
It's not spirituality Penhall thinks we need, but an alternative social order – the trouble is, the present modus operandi is so embedded in the collective psyche, even thinking up a plausible alternative seems impossible, let alone instituting one. Just before Christmas, I saw Mike Bartlett's 13 at the National, a production far more buzzy and electrified and current than Haunted Child, but equally less involving: there was too much of the perennial student about scruffy prophet John for his popularity to be convincing, and the entire second half felt like a university debate. As John, Trystan Gravelle was magnetic, so still and soft and reasonable you felt inexorably drawn to him, mesmerised by him, but nothing his character said persuaded nearly as much as the fiercely eloquent key speech from the Tory prime minister, about why – despite her liberal core – she joined forces with the Conservatives. Annoyingly, I deleted the copy of the script from my inbox, so can't quote it verbatim, but at the root of it was a belief in hard work, in human ambition, in our ability to change lives, our own and others'. In retrospect, it reminded me of a piece Philip Pullman wrote in the Guardian in 2005 (and I'll bet rather a lot that Bartlett, avid Guardian reader that he is, either clipped it out and kept it on file or, like me, has it tattooed on his memory) about the conservative-with-a-small-c social values he longed to see championed by a government, any government, even a Tory government. Much as John, and through him Bartlett, seemed to be advocating “belief” in this play, ultimately what Bartlett most effectively communicates is that we should be putting our faith not in some spurious numinous spiritual force but in the possibility of creating a new way of living that doesn't feel toxic, even if it is, to some degree, the old way of living.
Preoccupied to the point of unhealthy fixation with these questions that have no answers as I am, I glimpse hope where I can. On the weekend I read my daughter a book we picked up in the library called Three by the Sea, by the astoundingly brilliant author/illustrator Mini Grey. It's about a dog, a cat and a mouse who live in splendid isolation in a beach hut, where dog does the gardening (bones protrude from the ground), cat does the housework (a quick zip round the house followed by a nice long nap) and mouse is in charge of the cooking (cheese fondue for everyone!). They're perfectly happy, until a stranger from the Winds of Change Trading Company blows in, and through a series of insinuations poisons the trio with discontent. He's a crafty fox, and before long manages to steal their boat, but that's, rather wonderfully, by the by. What fox makes the three realise is that if they thought a little more about each other, shared their toil, co-operated more, their lives could be richer and happier. It's the pared-back, child-pure version of that philanthropic, humanist vision Pullman conjured up: how much better life would be, if only we were all a bit less bloody selfish.