“I can’t handle another book right now”
Quite the coup for the Rose Kingston this, not just in John Malkovich’s London debut as a director but in the English language premiere of Zach Helm’s 2006 play Good Canary. The two go hand in hand though, Malkovich having previously helmed its opening run in France (as Le Bon Canari) and then its subsequent production in Mexico (El Buen Canario), a clear affinity for the material bringing him back time and again.
The play is a hard-hitting, at times searing, examination of mental illness and how they intersect both with the creative process and the reality of being a woman in the contemporary USA. On top of the world after great notices for his first novel, Harry Lloyd’s Jack is mulling over a big bucks offer for the next but his wife Annie, Freya Mavor, is self-medicating her mental health with a hefty speed addiction and neither are clear what impact such a change might have on their lives.
So far so angst-fest but what makes Good Canary a really fascinating prospect is the European arthouse aesthetic from which Malkovich seems to have drawn influence – Pierre-Francois Limbosch’s stunning video-based design is projected onto three ever-moving blocks with props on sliding tracks moving us seamlessly through the multiple boho NY locations; the screens are also used to demonstrate Annie’s deteriorating state of mind in a goofy but effective graphic novel style.
Nicolas Errera’s angular score adds a haunting sense of atmosphere, something further charged by the splintering of the text in the second act – one scene turns absurdist, another is played as a silent movie complete with captions. And somehow it all works – a breath-takingly raw performance from Mavor anchored by Lloyd’s slow-building desperation, theirs is a coupling you truly come to root for, even in – especially in – its more shattering moments.
Good Canary is drawn from Helm’s personal experiences and this piercing acuity shows; this knowledge also inclines one to forgive the slightly pat ending with its rare foray into Hollywoodism. But with strong supporting performances from the likes of Steve John Shepherd as a literary agent, and Sally Rogers as a hilarious piece of arm candy (it’s better than it sounds, honest), it’s a fascinating piece of drama and somehow, just how you’d imagine a John Malkovich-directed play to be.