Week 13: Patrick Marber’s Closer (1997)
In lists of the greatest or most influential plays of the twentieth century, Closer (which premiered at the National Theatre in a production by Marber) is often up there sitting between Conor McPherson’s The Weir and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. Although, unlike the other two, Michael Billington omitted it in his book The 101 Greatest Plays, published in 2015. But Closer does feature on the National’s NT2000 list of 100 plays of the century and in Stephen Unwin’s and Carole Woddis’ A Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama. I’m often intrigued by those lists, partly by the process of choosing the more recent plays. Plays like Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire were already established plays of the canon by the early 2000s, whereas I imagine plays of the nineties would have been viewed from a slightly different perspective. It’s interesting for instance that there are often none of Sarah Kane’s plays on those lists, perhaps because the lists were made before the dust surrounding Kane’s plays and death had settled. I was too young at the time, but it would be interesting to see if Kane’s work is seen differently now as to how it was viewed in the early 2000s.
Closer is a four hander (between two men and two women) set in London over 12 scenes spanning over four years. Obituary writer Dan begins a relationship with Alice, a lap dancer, and writes a novel about her. Not long after, he meets Anna, slightly older and a photographer. Then, whilst pretending to be ‘Anna’ over the internet, he persuades Larry to meet him/ her for sex. The following day, Larry meets the real Anna at London Zoo and soon after begins a relationship with her. The first act ends in Dan leaving Alice and Anna leaving Larry so Dan and Anna can be together. In act two, Larry meets Alice in a strip club. The couples eventually and briefly get back together in their original set up (Dan and Alice, Anna and Larry) until the last tantalising scene in which they are all alone again.
Simply put, it’s a play about love, desire, and the need to reach out to be closer to people ‘in the anonymity of the modern city’ (Unwin 2001: 262). It is provocative at times: some moments in content and sentiment are reminiscent of Mark Ravenhill’s work although it’s interesting that Closer is rarely bundled with the plays of the ‘in-yer-face’ moment, a retrospective term coined by Aleks Sierz. But it’s also startling to see how the characters so often wear their hearts on their sleeves: ‘I love you, I “fucking” love you. I need you. I can’t think, I can’t work, I can’t breathe’, Dean says to Anna in one scene. Characters love hard and they bleed hard. It’s a modern exploration of love for modern audiences, and doesn’t read dated, even in the internet scenes. Marber said it was an exploration of ‘where love is at the moment’ (as quoted in Daniel Rosenthal’s The National Theatre Story). It seems hard to believe that people can always speak as candidly as they do in Closer but its portrayal of unrestrained love is ambitious and sassy and conveys an age of liberation.
Its specific settings around London also make it appealing, but in a subtler way than the skylines in Richard Curtis rom coms. We go from the Aquarium at London Zoo, to an art gallery, to the memorial of those who sacrificed their own lives to save others in Postman’s Park. However, Rosenthal points out, ‘the lapdancing venue was once a punk club’ and Anna’s studio once a refuge for women (Rosenthal 2013: 579). Just how the characters change and are not as they seem, the nature of London changes too. Closer features sharp, funny dialogue and is exceptionally structured – deliciously so in fact. We have to piece together the missing parts and the unknowns, leaving us to wonder why Alice gave a false name and what happens in the months between scenes. Marber’s play is a superlative one which mines the sexual politics of the four characters and which is worthy of its place on lists of ‘greatest plays’.