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theatre

Daddy – Almeida

Jeremy O. Harris’s magnificently theatrical art-world drama makes for a compelling examination of the ethics of money, power, sex and love

Sharlene Whyte, Terique Jarrett and Ioanna Kimbook in Daddy

A swimming pool dominates the set of Daddy. It acts as a glittering mirror, a cool space of relief and relaxation, yet it also it fills with bodies, sweat, spit, fluids, and mess. Immaculately designed by Matt Saunders, it is a grand, melodramatic metaphor which befits the play absolutely – representing the opulent, palatial open-plan home in which the action occurs, and the complicated warmth and malice of the play’s dangerous central relationship.

Daddy follows the rise of young artist Franklin, as he meets Andre, a wealthy art collector, potential patron, and (as the frequent and hilariously literal renditions of George Michael attest) substitute ‘Father Figure’. The play opens with Franklin – ‘high on molly’ – dripping wet from the pool, lost in his thoughts and surroundings. Having met Andre at a gallery opening, they have come back to Andre’s place – their simmering, sometimes-troubling, sometimes-affectionate sexual-romantic relationship taking uncertain shape before our eyes. Andre christens Franklin ‘Naomi’, due to having ‘legs like Naomi [Campbell]’, and Franklin will continue to be fetishized, as well as infantilised, as the play goes on.

Daddy is an earlier work than Jeremy O. Harris’s Broadway hit Slave Play (which is yet to appear on a London stage). The plays demonstrate impressive range, with substantially different formal and thematic interests, though there are some fascinating shared preoccupations: the relationship of sex to games, the complication of romantic and sexual relationships by power, history and society, as well as grand gestures in design. (Slave Play’s original setholds up a literal mirror to its audience.) Where Slave Play scrutinises historical trauma in the power dynamics of interracial couples, Daddy adds to this divisions of age and importantly wealth too. Harris seems to view drama as an ideal space to analyse and attempt to draw the line between power’s eroticism, and its tendency towards the problematic or abusive.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) by David Hockney (1972)

Harris has described David Hockney as an aesthetic influence on the play – particularly his 1972 work Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). It was one of many pictures on a mood board in the Almeida’s foyer (along with Hockney’s equally famous 1967 painting A Bigger Splash), and the script’s ‘Note on Style’ instructs the reader to ‘Google’ it. The image of the standing figure (the artist Peter Schlesinger) peering down at swimmer beneath the water seems apt to this play of gaze, longing and looking. There is a yearning in the standing figure, perhaps even a note of melancholy. Daddy dramatises (and inverts) a version of this scene. Now the artist, Franklin, is more often swimming, while being observed longingly by Andre. Yet the painting seems relevant to Daddy not just as art, but as an artefact, tying into a thesis the play repeatedly tests: that art (and possibly everything) loses its value if it can be owned. At Christie’s, in 2018, Hockney’s large canvas set a record for the most expensive painting ever sold at auction by a living artist. An unknown buyer purchased the piece for $90.3 million. Thus, Portrait of an Artist is not only a mirror of the play’s dynamics, or an aesthetic touchstone for its design, but a model of the fraught ownership Daddy interrogates.

Hockney himself is perhaps something of a muse for the play – caught as he is in the eddies and ripples of commercial art. An air of effortlessness pervades his work, from the lightly stylised rendering of the figures and landscape in Portrait of an Artist to his recent work, such as his rather disappointing digital paintings collectively titled ‘The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020’. For some, money has clearly harmed his artistry; Tom Whyman has called this trend in Hockney’s work his ‘Art of Doing the Bare Minimum’, citing ‘rubbish late-period’ pieces including his particularly half-hearted commercial commissions like his low-effort redesign of the logo for Piccadilly Circus station. Whyman contemplates the gesture, suggesting and then rejecting the idea that it mounts a ‘rebellion of the idle’ in reminding commuters that they need not try too hard. Instead, he concludes, it is an ‘arrogant gesture of aristocratic contempt’.

Ioanna Kimbook and John McCrea in Daddy

At stake is the position of the artist in society, the play charting both a regression into childhood – in child-like sexual role play and thumb sucking – and a coming-of-age into an adult and artist. Artistic success is arguably compromising though. Late in the play, Franklin clarifies the claim he made early on, arguing that making art on commission, for a gallery or show, feels tainted – compared to making art for art’s sake. Daddy itself was not commissioned; Harris wrote it on spec, and it is the play that got him into the Yale School of Drama – after which it was rewritten and reworked to become today’s version. Thus, it is a play that questions his own idealism – at the start of a career that so far has been extremely illustrious. Patronage is presented as both elevation and destruction – a valid and important historical model (à la the Medicis), or a relic of a bygone age. Franklin is supported financially and given opportunity, yet he is at risk of selling his soul. Harris, however, considers the artist to be inherently powerful. Though Andre has clear material and social advantages, he comes to realise that Franklin’s comments about ownership were not so much social commentary, or even a prediction of his coming infantilisation by Andre, but a ‘warning’ – ‘that if you [Franklin] could get me [Andre], have me, if I would have you, that I would become worthless in your arms’. It was never simply the exercise of Andre’s dominance over Franklin, but a complex mutual interplay of power.

These rich, interpersonal dynamics are handled with aplomb by the play’s leads. Terique Jarrett stunningly captures Franklin’s fluctuations in confidence and uncertainty – self-assuredly opining about Cy Twombly but still clearly an artist in the making. The best scenes in the play are those between him and Claes Bang’s Andre, which crackle with chemistry, mutual infatuation and menace. Bang is probably most familiar to British audiences as Dracula in the 2020 BBC series of the same name (as well as the lead of Palme d’Or winner The Square, also set in the art world), and he conveys a similarly winning mixture of charm and threat here as the suave, ambiguously vampiric art collector. We begin to wonder if Andre collects not just artworks, but also artists. Despite his ostensible power, he feels somewhat incapable when it comes to expressing his deepest feelings. Yet he is also hilariously expressive, such as in Danya Taymor and choreographer Anjali Mehra’s fantastically staged dance sequence, which closes the first act.

Meanwhile, Harris’s supporting characters, especially young wannabe influencer Bellamy, undergo one of my favourite dramatic transformations: a shift from comically superficial and affected to subtly profound. Their affectations are retrospectively exposed as signs of the characters’ richly drawn neuroses. Delivering a speech for the wedding of Franklin and Andre, Bellamy struggles to find the words she needs, alighting on the phrase ‘When it’s summer every day, when even is it?’ Ioanna Kimbook gives the line a devastatingly discontented reading, puncturing the glossily filtered world that she has helped curate, through her posts and their embedded worldview. At the beginning of the text, Harris notes that ‘She has 9.3K Instagram followers’ and ‘She’s quite happy with her own directionlessness.’ By the end, she seems adrift, and we are left not quite so sure. Strong support also comes from John McCrea, as well as Sharlene Whyte as Franklin’s mother – who becomes a commanding presence in the second half, engaged in an unacknowledged power struggle with Andre, as mother and father figures respectively.

Terique Jarrett in Daddy

Harris’s gleeful determination to deconstruct the theatrical form is in evidence here, though Slave Play’s extended examination of the ethics of play, plays and playing develops this further. Daddy’s disruptions are slightly less assured, yet they reveal a playwright thinking about – and outside of – his chosen medium. Harris has clearly noted the peculiar tension that arises in a theatre when a phone goes off. I recently witnessed the engrossing offstage drama of a man’s palpable relief when a ringtone turned out to be from the phone of his seat neighbour and not his own faux pas. Yet some dramatists are increasingly realising that this miniature ritual of anxiety, shame and judgement will occur both when the phone belongs to an audience member or is part of the play. The jolt of tension created is an arguably unavoidable distancing effect, alienating and reasserting the drama’s fictionality, as the viewer momentarily scrambles to check or remember if they had turned theirs off.

Here, Franklin’s phone repeatedly rings – which is distancing for Franklin himself, pulling him out of his world. Lee Kinney’s sound design melds the distinctive chimes (the iPhone ringtone ‘Opening’) into longer pads, slowing them down and creating alarming soundscapes. Coupled with Isabella Byrd’s lighting, the mood is one filled with potent horror. At the end of the play, we learn that the call Franklin has been silencing is from his father. The anxiety, fear and guilt caused by phones ringing in theatres aptly parallels the feelings evoked by Franklin’s father. It is a neat touch, bringing the play full circle and identifying the major source of trauma in the play. Perhaps Daddy slightly over-resolves itself, and the ending becomes slightly protracted, yet the play remains a hugely engrossing examination of the ethics of art and love.

Daddy

Written by Jeremy O. Harris, Directed by Danya Taymor, Set Design by Matt Saunders, Costume Design by Montana Levi Blanco and Peter Todd, Lighting Design by Isabella Byrd, Sound Design and Original Music by Lee Kinney, Music Supervision by Tim Sutton, Original Vocal Score by Darius Smith and Brett Macias, Hair and Makeup Design by Cynthia De La Rosa, Choreography and Movement Direction by Anjali Mehra, Intimacy and Fight Direction by Yarit Dor, Casting Direction by Amy Ball, Doll Design by Tschabalala Self, Dialect Coaching by Brett Tyne, Costume Supervision by Olivia Ward, Assistant Direction by Mumba Dodwell, Playwright’s Assistant Raffi Donatich, Assistant Sound Design by Ali Taie, Starring Rebecca Bernice Amissah, Keisha Atwell, Claes Bang, Terique Jarrett, Ioanna Kimbook, John McCrea, Jenny Rainsford, Sharlene Whyte, T’Shan Williams
Production Photographs by Marc Brenner
Reviewed 1st April 2022

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