JAMES MACNAMARA is unnerved by the lack of attention to a difficult historical context in this week’s Corpus late show.
Corpus Playroom, 9.30pm, Tue 5th – Sat 5th February, £6/£5
by Bethan Kitchen
directed by Bethan Kitchen and Robert Hawkins
Mark Wartenberg appears in both Corpus shows this week. One is Pinter’s Betrayal, which might be said to be a dark examination of “the domestic war experienced by anyone who knows what love feels like”. The other is Coco, which is said to be about “showing the audience themselves – the domestic war experienced by anyone who knows what love feels like”.
The quote is taken from Bethan Kitchen’s ‘Writer’s Note’, also informing us that “this play is not about showing an audience the real Coco Chanel, or the scandalous secrets of a love affair”. It achieves this admirably, avoiding as it does any mention of vicious anti-Semitism or a loving collaboration with the Nazis.
Instead it gives us a glimpse into the quotidian exchanges between Coco and her Nazi lover, Spatz. They kiss, quarrel, read Shakespeare together, tease, laugh and smoke. We are certainly shown a ‘domestic war’ of some kind. It’s in a house, they drink tea and they raise their voices. But compared to Pinter’s this war is more of a tickle fight, and as “the outside world works its way in” I couldn’t help but wish it would hurry up and give this pair a kick in the pants.
I couldn’t bring myself to sympathise with them. When Spatz points out that Coco doesn’t seem to care about the war going on outside, and that this might be unusual, he’s right. She flits around chain-smoking, drinking wine, re-applying her lipstick and pouting coquettishly at her lover-boy, provocatively uninterested in what might be happening to other people.
And all the while, hating the Jews. You see, the context impinges on whatever we’re supposed to get from witnessing the unravelling of this relationship. A fascist and a conceited anti-Semite can fall in love too? They can be hurt!? How sweet!
Reactions like this are unsophisticated and insult the effort put into the show, but I’m finding it difficult to suppress them. Coco and Spatz are not a suitable archetype to use in exploring the complexities of love. They’re not nice people. They’re not noble. Coco takes a toy-boy Nazi lover, swans around with him at the Ritz and Rue de Cambon whilst half of Europe is being murdered, and uses her place in the Nazi circle to oust the Jews in charge and gain sole ownership of Parfum Chanel. It’s a dirty, unseemly, odious little partnership – not the grand Anthony and Cleopatra that the play suggests. I don’t care how sweet their whispered nothings are when they’re in private, I want to see this dark side interrogated and accounted for in the script.
But ultimately this production’s failing is that the examination of their relationship is not vivid enough to atone for the inappropriateness of the situation that contains it. I’ve been in love, and I remember it being much more fiery, strange, sexy and hurtful than what we are given in Coco. Mark Wartenberg and Georgia Wagstaff must be the most striking pair of faces in Cambridge, but I was rarely convinced of their chemistry.
But Coco is not poorly written. In fact, it’s alarmingly well-crafted for something that detracts so wildly from its own point. It’s short, punchy and stylish, and it will mostly be enjoyed. But it can only be enjoyed if its content is separated from a grimy and unexamined context, and this means that whatever Coco says about love, it’s not worth listening to.