What do you get if you cross Othello with Dr Seuss?
This is a question which I doubt anyone has ever asked, and which never needed to be asked. But boy am I glad it was.
Because the answer is The Motherf**ker with the Hat.
Set in New York city, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play follows Jackie, a member of AA who’s out of jail, staying sober, has the girl of his dreams, and just landed himself a job. But being a comedy come drama, things won’t stay that way for very long, and all of this is jeopardized when Jackie discovers something horrifying…A HAT. And not just any hat. Another motherf***er’s hat in his motherf***ing apartment!
Nominated for 6 Tonys during it’s run on Broadway, The Mothef**ker with the Hat is destined for similar success in the West End. A refreshingly raw and honest play, The Motherf**ker with the Hat explores fidelity, the ‘space between who you think you are and who you actually are’, and one man’s obsession with haberdashery!
Last night was the opening night of The Motherf**ker with the Hat, and thanks to The National Theatre’s Entry Pass, I was lucky enough to go see this with my good friend Claire for only £5.
From the very first scene, you can tell what the greatest strength of this play is: the script.
I’m not sure quite how Guirgis has done it, but his script manages to evoke some of the poetry of Shakespeare, but using the language of South Park! This is particularly felt in the opening scene, in which Jackie obsesses over a hat, just as Othello obsesses over another piece of haberdashery: a handkerchief. Here’s an extract from both scripts, and tell me they don’t echo:
Guirgis’ script is pure verbal acrobatics at it’s finest. High octane exchanges like this are common throughout the play, between Veronica and Jackie, Jackie and his sponsor Ralph, and Jackie and his cousin Julio. There are great one liners as well which will stick with you after you leave, either because they’re hilarious or so rude! My favourite has to be one of Jackie’s:
There’s blow and vodka and cigarette butts and you didn’t think think I’d be home so soon, and the Motherfucka left his Hat like motherfucking Zorro leaving his ‘Z’ all over the scene of the crime!
Moving on to another strength, the staging is great in this production. The National Theatre has always excelled in this area, with its drum revolve making performances in The Olivier Theatre multi-dimensional. The Motherf**ker with the Hat is being performed in The Lyttelton, and it makes great use of the space available.
New York fire escapes frame the piece, clearly creating a sense of space and signalling when the action has moved to a different part of New York. No, literally, they fly around the stage to reposition themselves, and allowing the different sets to move on/off stage. This staging really reminded me of Birdland at The Royal Court Theatre last year: the stage is angled, framed in a certain way, and moves about a lot.
With only 5 actors, the cast really excels in this production. Ricardo Chavira’s Jackie is just a ball of unbridled energy! Appearing in every scene bar one (if I’m not mistaken), Chavira manages to keep this energy throughout, in his movement and voice. He makes a character who, in is own words, is an ‘asshole’ completely sympathetic, again, much like Othello, both coming across as one who ‘loved not wisely, but too well’. His scenes with Flor De Liz Perez’s Veronica are, like I said, verbal acrobatics. Watching their back and forths is amazing: they have the timing down perfectly, and they’re chemistry is wholly believable.
Alec Newman’s Ralph is utterly loathable, which shows just how great a performance he’s created. His scenes with Jackie towards the end of the play will have you laughing out loud, purely from Ralph’s audacity! Nathalie Armin’s Victoria is an interesting side character, and her honesty in the role provides some much needed moments of down time, in an otherwise enrgetic play. Finally Yul Vásquez’ Cousin Julio got some of the biggest laughs and claps of the night, particularly when he channels his inner Van Damme! Vásquez is amazing in this role and, like Armin, is given one of the more quiet moments of the piece, when talking about his and Jackie’s relationship. My only critique is of the character, not the actor: in a play which is honest in its language and characterisation, Julio can come across as a bit of a stereotype. Which may not be a bad thing, judging by the audience’s reaction to him last night.
The only areas which I didn’t like or need work are few: the stage fighting needs to be a bit crisper, even though it’s supposed to be an all out brawl, it just needs tightening up. There are a few occasions the actors need to wait for the laughs, but it was opening night so the first time a British audience was reacting to it, so they’ll find the pauses through experience. There is a twist, don’t worry I won’t spoil it, but both Claire and me guessed it, though it did get an audible gasp from some of the audience. As did some of the language! And finally, I just didn’t like the ending. It’s a comedy and it had to end 1 of 2 ways, but it felt quite an anticlimactic finish. But that could just be me hoping it finished like Othello or Shakespeare in general: with death everywhere! Considering it was the first night, this is an exteremely polished production, with only a few areas to improve on.
With a colourful but expressive script, fast and furious pacing, and incredible actors, I cannot recommend The Motherf**ker with the Hat enough: there is literally NOTHING like this on in London, although I’m not sure quite what ‘this’ is.
The Motherf**ker with the Hat is playing at The National’s Lyttelton Theatre, and is currently booking until August 20th 2015.