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The Journal of Camus Studies
Formerly the Journal of the Albert Camus Society, the JCS is published annually and is available in print or as an ebook. For more information on purchasing or contributing visit the Camus Journal page.
Cross Purpose strong performances by the cast, the set designed by Jenny Gamble and Ilona Russell's stylish costumes just fantastic. Catch this while you can.
An inverted tale of the Prodigal Son. Jan, having left home decades previously to seek his fortune, returns home a rich man. His mother and Martha, his sister, fail to recognize him and believing him to be a lonely traveller murder him for his money. When his true identity is finally revealed, his mother drowns herself and Martha hangs herself. Maria, his distraught wife, calls on a higher power for help; this power, embodied in the form of an old manservant, replies 'No'.
Many of us experience Cross Purpose (also known as The Misunderstanding ) in written form. The play is rarely performed. When first staged in 1944, the performance was a disappointment both for Camus and most of his audience. The claustrophobic gloominess matched the atmosphere of Paris under the occupation of the Nazis; perhaps this and the hopelessness expressed in the play meant that audiences weren't ready. Alternatively, the failure could simply have been due to miscasting and a short run. Today, almost seventy years later, a staging of Cross Purpose is rare (staging Camus at all is rare and when a play is put on, Caligula is preferred). Why is this?
Perhaps it is thought that audiences, rather that not being 'ready for it', are 'over it', that the play is too dated. It is true that ‘the absurd' as a philosophical concern is currently out of favour (we are, however, witnessing a growing modern interest in Camus) but the dangers of extreme individualism and the relativity of values are about as up-to-date as you can get. Cross Purpose depicts the destruction of a family fatally incapable of communicating with each other. Blinded by their own dreams, failing to realize that values are not dreamt up in isolation but discovered communally, Jan, his mother, Martha and his wife are doomed from the start. How can these ideas fail to be relevant concerns for modern audiences who live in a world spent half online and for whom ‘family' can mean something entirely different to the person sat next to them; in a society that offers a these values are mine, what are yours? mentality with a lifestyle of your choice. Times change and so do audiences but the concerns expressed in the play are still as pressing today as ever they were. For example: references to religion, God and salvation get a laugh from an audience in London 2012 that is perhaps more complacent and lacking in the bitterness that one would expect from Paris 1944. But is this a sign of people coming together or of their further isolation? It could be argued that the ethic of sincerity found present but obscured seventy years ago by Camus is even better hidden today and our need to find it even greater.
Cross Purpose at The King's Head Theatre
Catching a performance of Cross Purpose is a rare treat. And last night's performance of Cross Purpose was a treat indeed. The difference between seeing a play and reading a play is not as marked as, say, the difference between listening to a song and reading the lyrics but to have only read a play leaves something significantly lacking. I was reminded of this last night thanks to the fine performances of Jamie Birkett, Christina Thornton, David Lomax, Melissanthi Mahut and Leonard Fenton. An actor can take a character, previously imagined in the shadows, and throw him or her into the light. David Lomax's Jan achieved just this.
I have never previously appreciated Jan, considering him to be a contrived character designed only to help the story along. In fact, it is easy to think of him as little more than an idiot. Meursault, reading a newspaper clipping of a remarkably similar 'Jan', certainly thought him one. It is useful to try and imagine Martha successfully reaching the sunny climate of her dreams and to imagine what her life would be like. Can we ever imagine her happy, what would this happiness be like? But to imagine Jan not drinking the tea and then revealing his true identity to the mother and sister seems ridiculous. How could he imagine that scene going down well?
Lomax's sympathetic portrayal of Jan added a dimension to the character that, in my previous readings, had been lacking. Here is a man not with a plan but the first stages of one. He doesn't know how the reunion proper will go, or indeed how he will go about it. Lomax has Jan search the faces of his mother and sister, looking for a way in but finding none. Alone in his shabby room he's forced to wonder: once back in the bosom of his family, what next? When he decides to leave the hotel, although we know it is too late, I saw in him doubt that he would come back. Who is it he's really trying to persuade that he will return, his mother or himself? It is only when drugged and half-conscious that he seems reassured that things can go well. Like Martha's flowers and the sea, Jan's hope of returning home can only be a dream.
Director Stephen Whitson has put together a fine Cross Purpose. With strong performances by the cast, a fantastic set designed by Jenny Gamble and Ilona Russell's stylish costumes, they deserve a 5 star review.
Tickets: £10.00 - £25.00