Good Canary, is a play about drug addiction, its consequences on people’s lives and livelihoods. It is about mental deterioration, driving ambition, the precariousness of literary talent, the consequences of sexual abuse and the dubious amoral world of publishing. A powerfully toxic, dark brew that is destined to take us into the dark side of human nature and help us explore our own motivations and perhaps darker side too.
Zach Helm, is known in France , Spain and Mexico for his acclaimed productions of Good Canary directed in each case by John Malkovich. The play has been translated into French and Spanish although first written in English. It is now appearing in Britain for the first time and being produced for the first time in English at the Rose Theater Kingston. Zach Helm is also known for the film, Mr Magoriums Wonder Emporium. He is renowned as a teacher of drama. He has created a technique called ,”open input drama,” which encourages actors to use experiences from the real world.
Zach Helm with his wife, Kiele Sanchez
John Malkovich is famous for starring in Dangerous Liaisons, Being John Malkovich and starring and performing in over seventy films. He has two Academy Award nominations. He speaks both French and Spanish.
I must warn any reader of this before they start reading that this is not a review but my analysis of what I saw the other day at The Rose Theatre. There will be plenty of,” plot alerts,” whatever that means? So many people write that phrase when reviewing things. I thought I would have a go at using it too.
The two main characters are Annie, played by Freya Mavor and Jack, played by Harry Lloyd.
Good Canary, begins with Annie and Jack in their New York apartment. Jack has just had his first novel published and has received a good review by a highly regarded New York Times reviewer. Jack reads the review to Annie who is cynical about it and analyses every phrase for its real meaning not believing it could be good. Annie is pacing about frenetically. The discussion changes.There is a lot of arguing and the free use of the F word being shouted. Jack is asks Annie how many pills she has taken. Annie is a drug addict and uses amphetamines to function. References to drugs and the world of drugs underpin this whole play. Annie cleans the apartment continually. The computerized scenery allows the windows she cleans at one stage to shrink or enlarge at will and move about on the wall almost trying to avoid Annie’s manic cleaning attempts. “How many times have you cleaned the apartment today?” Jack asks. “Oh three or four times maybe,” Annie replies as though its normal. There is a scene where her drug dealer,Jeff, played energetically and with an element of nervous energy by Ilan Goodman, comes around. He seems to be a friend of the family. Annie buys two enormous bags of pills. He says he has had to search Manhattan to obtain so much in one go. She pays him $2000 for them. The drug dealer is very nervous about letting her have the drugs. A drug dealer with a heart. A dealer with a conscience. His addiction however is money and he can’t resist selling all these drugs to Annie. He wines about her being careful. He pleads with her to not take them all in one go. This is a joke of course. Annie is not good at rationing her drugs and drugs bought to last a fortnight last four or five days. She says she wants to buy in bulk so she doesn’t have to worry the drug dealer so often and to have easy access to drugs whenever she wants. As well as the bulk buying of drugs Annie also, randomly it seems, buys a large steal red box. The audience is immediately drawn into this dark crazy world that Annie and Jack inhabit.
Its not just drugs that are the problem. We assume that Annie has been sexually abused as a child. At a dinner party with a publishing executive and his wife she even hints that sexual abuse for women is the norm.”So when did you first get raped?” She asked Sylvia the executives wife. She goes on to say that she was nine years old when it first happened to her. We begin to discover the root causes of Annies drug addiction. At one time Jack tells Charlie how Annie pleaded with her to fuck her in the arse and forced him to try. He could see the pain he was causing her and stopped. She seemed to crave the abusive behavior she had experienced as a child.
Annie ( Freya Mavor) searching for the drugs that Jack has hidden.
Jack, also randomly it seems, buys a small yellow canary in a cage for Annie to look after during the day. He thinks this might give her a focus to help take her mind of drugs. Annie is completely taken by this beautiful little piece of life. She loves it. The canary hangs from a stand on the stage throughout the performance. A computerized text appears on a wall that explains the use of canaries down mines to warn of gas. A canary will visibly weaken and die with the onset of gas in the tunnels. We as the audience think this must be of great significance. Being aware of Annie’s fragility this must be the warning for Annie’s later precariousness or even demise. However, although the canary is there on the stage virtually throughout the performance its actual significance is forgotten and references to it are no longer made. I think this is a weakness by this nonuse of a supposedly important piece of imagery.
In many plays that deal with dark subjects there is dark humour. Zach Helm has put humour into this play but it is intermittent. A more adept playwright would keep an underlying sense of the absurd as a continuous thread throughout a play like this. The scene where Annie is cleaning the apartment whilst on speed is funny and strange. The scene where she is buying drugs from ,Jeff.her dealer has its light moments. Annie ends up in hospital at one stage because of her attempts to vomit. Jack eventually finds that she has stuffed a hair curler deep down her throat and nearly choked to death. The ridiculousness of it is evident.
Zach Helm has tried very hard to use all the playwright’s techniques and strategies. However, they are so obvious it makes much of the play clunky. There are the dramatic pauses, too long at times. I thought the actors had forgotten their lines. We have the theater critic, who every writer is afraid off, because their review can make or break them. The publisher who doesn’t read the books he publishes. He may as well be selling potatoes as far as he cares. The wife of the wealthy publisher who sits in her expensive high rise Manhattan penthouse and who is lonely and is bored with life. These are so obvious techniques it makes me think that I have seen parts of this play before. Now where did that scene come from? Where have I seen that before?
There is also the matter of computerized text displayed on screens. They provide us with background information at times, for instance explaining the use of canaries in mines. I think modern technology is fine in a play, and I absolutely loved the way projectors and lighting were used to create the scenery in this play but I am not convinced about its use to provide dialogue. This is more appropriate for texts displaying information in museums and galleries perhaps but I am not convinced about its use in a play. The actors spoken dialogue should provide all. There was one other use of computerized text which worried me. There is a tender scene between Jack and Annie. They are holding each other expressing their love. They lie on stage in silence. Their inner thoughts are displayed on screens above their entwined bodies. Fist Jack’s words appear and then Annie’s. This scene is a prolonged moment. Anybody with poor eyesight might think the play had ended or come to some frozen standstill. Shakespeare would have used a soliloquy. Other playwrights might have used a voice to the audience.Probably voice overs from the actors themselves would have worked much better. It detracted from the dramatic moment.
Jack and Annie with the canary of the title.
The Good Canary suddenly becomes something of worth at the point when Jack reveals that he is not the author of the new acclaimed novel but it is Annie who is the writer. There is an awareness that the center of this play, where all strands lead, is Annie.This is the crux of the play. Everybody, whether they know it or not is reliant on Annie. Jeff the drug dealer needs Annie to buy his drugs so he has an income. Jacks publisher, Charlie, the large publishing firm wanting to buy Charlie out run by Stuart, the New York Times reviewer, Mullholland , who seems to hold all the power and Stuart’s, bored, lonely, sophisticated wife Sylvia, they need her for their very existence. They need Annie’s creative talent to provide for their livelihoods and eventually all the characters realise this.
Jack was aware of his reliance on Annie from the start of the play. There are moments when we think, why is Jack so dedicated to Annie, he loves her yes, but love can be eroded by a partner living a drug addled existence. Charlie tries to get Jack away from Annie. He sees her as a liability. A party is to be held at Stuarts apartment. Charlie tries to persuade Jack to leave Annie at home because the party is about signing a publishing deal and he doesn’t want Annie to mess things up. Jack knows that Annie must be there. She is the real author. The audience thinks he is just being admirably loyal to his wife and I am sure he is being that but there are obviously other forces making him bring Annie along. Annie behaves in a self destructive way at the party.She ruins the party.Everybody is shocked and her behaviour appears to have destroyed any chance of a book deal. Charlie, Stuart and Mullholand display blatant misogyny . Stuart has treated his wife badly. We see their marriage self destructing. Mullholland tells Jack that after Stuarts wife leaves him that Stuart won’t even remember her after a while. He will get another to replace her. The men, apart from Jack, all dismiss Annie’s cries for help. They want to discard her. Jack is forced to reveal that Annie is the real author to Mullholland. Charlie is informed. The realization that their own existence relies on Annie’s talent , creativity and writing, changes all their outlooks towards her. Charlie wants Jack to get Annie to write a second book. Jack can see that Annie's drug habit is getting out of control. The publishers need a follow up novel to the first successful novel. Jack pays off Jeff to stay away from Annie and not sell her any more drugs. Jack gets rid of the drugs in the apartment. Annie can’t function. She becomes desperate. We realise that Annie needs her drugs to function and to write. We can think of Dylan Thomas and his drinking or Earnest Hemmingway and his reliance on drink too. The beat poets and writers all took drugs. Ken Keysey and One flew Over The Cookoos nest comes to mind.Annie commits suicide in the apartment when Jack is away. She pours bottle after bottle of bleach, chrome cleaner, anything she can get her hands on, down her throat. She dies in agonizing convulsions on the floor. It seems that with Annie’s death everybody else’s existence has come to an end too.
Jack is disconsolate sitting in the apartment alone. He sees the red steal box that Annie bought, what seems like ages ago. He manages to get the padlock open. Inside he finds numerous brown paper parcels. As he sits there opening them, we the audience, realise along with Jack that each parcel contains a manuscript. Annie, her days spent high on amphetamines had not only been cleaning the apartment she had been writing prolifically. Screens appear all around the stage displaying the novels, and books of poetry in Annie’s name that all become national best sellers.
Here Zach Helm tries to attempt dark humour again. Jack and Charlie appear amongst grave stones in a cemetery at Annie's funeral and Charlie says, “ For Christs sakes , she died of kitchen cleaning products, goddam.” I didn’t laugh.
Zach Helm is not an Edward Albee, or an Arthur Miller. His writing makes the themes, of drug abuse, misogyny, the affects of sexual abuse, hidden talent, appear to be derivative and hence contrived. There is something powerful in this play however. Its strength and importance is the realisation that our existence, our world can be founded on the weakest of things. Sometimes the greatest things can come from something weak and insignificant and damaged that we all want to ignore or want to discard. John Malkovich has made a creditable attempt at producing the play. There are weaknesses in the use of projected text instead of the spoken word. Some of the dramatic silences lose their drama after a length of time. This is probably to do with pace.The actors do their very best with lots of energy and some truly moving and emotional parts, especially from Freya Mavor as Annie. John Malkovich however,needs to get a better play script for the world to work out whether or not he can be a good stage directer. It seems he has only produced this one play, admittedly in various countries and in two other languages. Perhaps he should try an Edward Albee or an Arthur Miller, or even Shakespeare. If Malkovich is over here dipping his toes into the world of British theater to test the waters, he needs something better. If he is here trying to emulate Kevin Spacey at The Old Vic then he has some way to go.