Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas at the Royal Court Theatre – Carole Woddis.

`Greed is good’ declared Gordon Gekko in 1987 in the film Wall Street.  Mrs Thatcher also had quite a penchant for freeing up the market and letting rip.  Twenty five years on, the urge to acquire and to consume is deemed one of the answers to getting our economy back on its feet.  Let excess thrive, you might say.

Playwright Dennis Kelly has long had a virulently moralistic approach to our world.  You gather from his plays he doesn’t have many illusions left about humanity especially its financial imperatives.

After Love & Money (2006) which looked at consumerism, The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas (first staged interestingly enough in Germany in 2012) takes a searing swipe at the masters of the universe types – moguls, tycoons, bankers, top financiers and the like – peers unflinchingly into the hearts of darkness and asks, what drives them?

His answer is emptiness, lies and maybe, just maybe, the `courage’ to go all the way.  `Goodness or cowardice’ comes the refrain at decisive moments as Gorge’s life unfolds before us in the shape of extraordinary actor Tom Brooke.  Tall, gaunt, angular, he looks the epitome of discomfort, a social misfit, a loser.  But it is this figure who `goes all the way’, joins the secret `club’, `the rich and powerful who `have everything because they will do anything’ and whose mantra starts with `whenever you want something – take it.  Followed by `all that is required to take everything you want is absolute will and an ability to lie to the depth of your heart.’

Any number of present day global characters spring to mind in this description.  Fictionally, David Hare got there very early with Lambert Le Roux, his reptilian press baron in Pravda (written with Howard Brenton in 1985).

That was a comic tour de force.  Kelly’s very different, non-linear style comes at you like an all-enveloping tidal wave, at first narrated by the company of seven actors (uniformly excellent, yet each one distinct) then punctuated by short dialogued scenes.  Underlying it all the tone is one always of deep and bitter irony, like munching on a plate of anchovies for a couple of hours alleviated occasionally by the promise of a spoonful of jelly only for the sweetness to dissolve as soon as it hits the palate.

At the end, we are left with Gorge as a shell of a man, who has lied his way to power, is richer than Croesus but like a Howard Hughes lookalike, has retreated to one room in a mansion housing 270 rooms.

The message is unmistakeable.  And in a pre-show discussion between A C Grayling, the philosopher and neuroscientist, Kate Jeffery, Grayling pointed out how the drive to acquire need not in itself be a negative.  It is only, he argued, when it becomes excess for excess sake, when it impacts destructively on others that it acquires negative connotations.  Jeffery noted how new research has shown just how much compulsive behaviour relates back to the higher and lower control centres in the brain.  In some brains, that higher control function may have become faulty thus robbing the individual of responsibility – or indeed control – of their actions, a conclusion perhaps even more terrifying than Kelly’s theatrical metaphor.  But both, like Kelly, were at one on the enduring attraction of Greed in a public context. The acquisition of Power.

Vicky Featherstone’s production – cool, astringent, distanced with atonal cellos sounding – ends on a final image of Tom Brooke’s wizened Gorge, mouth pulled back in a hideous, toothless grimace.  It thunders to us in the darkening gloom – a warning and a damnation.

The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas is at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs to Oct 19; see www.royalcourttheatre.com

Carole Woddis © 2013.