“Vernon God Little”

Vernon God Little (Theatre)
Adapted from DBC Pierre’s novel by Tanya Ronder
Seen at: The Young Vic - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Vernon Little is a man much put upon. A none-too-sympathetic bastion of averageness in a sea of intolerably selfish people. The play begins in the aftermath of a school shooting, with a tone perhaps slightly more satirical than is wholly comfortable for an audience still wincing at our fascination with the tragic events at Virginia Tech. Vernon’s best friend, Jesus, has rushed from the classroom amid taunts from his fellow students, and returned to the high school fully armed and murderous. Vernon, curiously absent during the massacre-suicide that wiped out all of his friends, is immediately tarred with his friend’s feather: outsider, oddity, pariah. The proof can be found in every trace of teenaged alienation: his mother’s lingerie catalogues hidden with internet porn under his floorboards, a joint and some Acid he was holding for a friend, his curious inability to account for his attitudes and behaviors. When the media come to his small Texan town, led by charlatan/impresario Lally (who promptly seduces Vernon’s mother, a woman so terminally self-absorbed that she can only show interest in her son by asking after his bowel movements), Vernon is caught up in a frenzy of interpretation so ludicrous it begins creating its own violence to match the hype.

The Young Vic’s production is still in previews, and its edges remain a little rough, no doubt because an actor in the complex ensemble production had to be replaced at the last minute after a serious accident. Years ago I produced a show that encountered the same stumbling block a few days before opening, and I am not sure I have gotten over the stress yet, so I have instinctive sympathy for these actors and the crew. Although the show is filled with a manic enthusiasm that I can’t help but admire (and that is clearly a necessity with this expansive script), it has yet to find the proper rhythm that will make the chaos of the plot unwind meaningfully and the dialogue cohere with audience reaction. And seeing a play off its rhythm is a painful thing, even if the plot of Vernon God Little weren’t already so excruciating, so unrelentingly disastrous, that it is hard to endure (I seem to remember that the Booker Prize-winning novel, which I have not yet read, encountered this reaction from a number of readers). Sometimes the manic energy shades off into a recklessness or imprecise broadness of acting which makes blocking absurd rather than, well, absurdist (showing the flight of our hero by having him run in place seems like something out of a scene prepared half-hearted for a high school acting class) and turns characters into cartoons. Hopefully the previews will give the production time to acquire to polish that made the allegories in the Young Vic’s Brecht Fest such paragons of non-naturalistic characterization.

A couple of odds and ends:

First, the American accents struck me as better than those I often hear on the British stage, with its fondness for Arthur Miller that yields a “boy, golly” accent with the squeakiness of a – painting. Then I had to ask myself, is the Texan accent just easier to acquire than more neutral or mild American dialects, or is it my unfamiliarity with it that is blinding (or, rather, deafening) me to the flaws. Certainly I am now much more sensitive to the Southernism I know well, the range of North Carolinian accents that have been imitated so poorly by non-Tar Heel actors in the recent spate of films set in the state (Loggerheads, for instance, or Junebug), and cringe at stereotypical drawls which would have struck me as perfectly authentic a few years before.

Secondly, this production provided me with the very odd experience of seeing country line dancing for the second time in as many days on the London stage. But this time enthusiasm held true for the company, and their heel-slapping was so much more lively (and motivated) than that in Attempts on Her Life (last night's show) that I involuntarily let out a tiny whoop of appreciation and delight. Cheers to them for that.

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