Headlong’s long-anticipated American Psycho has not met with universal acclaim. Since the production’s announcement, and perhaps more so since the casting of Matt Smith, there has been an air of profound curiosity and mild foreboding confusion surrounding critical expectations. For most, some experience of a version of American Psycho has previously entered their cultural awareness; I managed to enter the Almeida, more by accident than design, completely empty of any pre-conceptions aside from the fact that I was about to encounter a fictional serial killer.
The first thing to note, which some have done most vociferously, is that this is theatre unafraid of not making sense. This has been alternately lauded as a more artistic European approach and dismissed out of hand as bad theatre making; viewpoints which I did battle with for the production’s entirety. American Psycho is not a particularly connected narrative journey, but it actually doesn’t need to be.
Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of American Psycho can be considered, at heart, an evisceration of the American male. The film adaptation’s director and co-writer Mary Harron in fact believes it to be very feminist in its satirisation of the excesses of yuppie maschismo. This is difficult to quantify, as the women we encounter are equally obsessed with surface appearance, but it does hail a time where the birth of the metrosexual may have led to somewhat of a crisis of masculinity as men became fixated on what had for some time previous been prescribed as the provenance of women; fashion, excessive cosmetic physical perfection and home décor.
Not having read the book in its entirety, it is difficult to say, but as Harron also prefers her own misunderstanding of the book to its original intent (prostitutes having orgasms?!); it is not beyond possibility that Ellis’ own send up of masculinity became itself parodic of the male fantasies he was depicting, while also acting as a scathing indictment of the vacuous yuppie lifestyle. Perhaps American Psycho subverts itself. Certainly Headlong’s production does; playing as a musical allows its decadence at times to outweigh reason (in this case the demands of the text), just as the excesses of its characters do. Often it actually feels confusing as to whether its elaborate staging supports or subverts its message; it is sparse in the general terms of what is expected of musical theatre, but busy in the context of a narrative with few characters and largely designed to take place from the point of view of one.
Constant, pacy scene changes make it disorientating and difficult to grasp a sense of place; it is deliberate that no one’s home feels like a home. There is a sense of infinite space and finite warmth; an aching hollowness as the characters grasp for an identity; reaching for drugs, designer labels, ridiculous delicacies and, eventually, the axe. As Smith’s Bateman dispatches wave after wave of recyclable victims, and anonymous Barney’s bag-headed trenchcoats dance around, one wonders whether the pointlessness is in fact the point. It may be the secret strength of this production that it is impossible to tell. A play has been created with almost entirely unsympathetic characters. It is deliberately alienating. Clearly someone worried about this enough to emphasise the role of Jean, Patrick’s secretary, and his relationship with her, but she simply isn’t enough to carry the production. Thus, a profound weight of confusion lies upon you for most of the first half, as you truly wonder what it is that you are watching, and why it is so bizarrely engaging when you would not care if all characters on stage were suddenly dispatched in the gore-fest whose absence many people have decried.
The key lies with our psycho. American Psycho is a musical about identity and the body; its worship and destruction, and how our focus on the surface ultimately acts to disconnect us from anything within. Playing with dualism, it treads a fine line between satirising the obsession with the outward and wholly neglecting the inward life of any of its characters, who obsess over designer labels, trendy restaurants and readily available highs; constantly neglecting and being mistaken for each other in their clamour to be the best. Though a compelling allegory (despite too forcefully insisting it is no such thing), such a two dimensional assembly cannot carry an entire piece and this only serves to lend Patrick Bateman more humanity than was perhaps intended, at least by its original author.
Although Bateman feels as though he ought to be an abstraction, and the heart of the play should live with Jean, his winds up being the sympathetic role. He feels incapable of menace, a most detached and polite serial killer. In a culture obsessed with the pursuit of status, he is vividly disconnected from the world and those around him. The idolatry of body image both demonstrated by Bateman and subverted by the musical’s mocking lyrics also acts to interrogate our relationship with sex, physicality and violence – the audience become voyeurs as multiple iterations of impersonal sex, and violence against women are offered up. Homosexuality and objectification are punchlines. The latter are the most problematic moments of the production as they are not so much dealt with as underlined as ridiculous by merit of repetition and extremity. While this serves to render the characters’ perspectives ridiculous and the fact that most audience members with eyes and the inclination have been objectifying Matt Smith since the opening number plays on the mind, it is definitely the least sophisticatedly handled aspect of the play.
The notion of the uncanny also figures strongly in this piece. As Goold himself has pointed out; the audience naturally reaches out to empathise with the character standing alone on stage. It is, as such, problematic to stage a psychopath. The difficulty of making Bateman unsympathetic has yet more to do with the domestication of the uncanny in modern texts – in a post-Dexter, post-Sherlock world, the uncanny psychopath feels more distant. We now expect to sympathise with the sociopath; we search out his qualities, he is not so unrecognizable an unknown. We should question whether Bateman is human, but we don’t. For all his brilliant monotone, Matt Smith is a touch too sympathetic. We are also aware that we are party to an allegory; it feels needless to empathise with the victims. It is in fact Bateman’s victims that play more towards the notion of the uncanny. They are anonymous, trenchcoated, invisible, deadpan, pre-emptively lifeless. The comitragedy of murderous musical numbers renders them even more of an abstraction.
With all of Bateman’s victims as mere props or demonstrably unpleasant characters, it is difficult to garner sympathy for them. Whether intentional or not, it renders a fascinating paradox – we want him to be happy, we want something to satisfy him. We are drawn into this lust for satiation; for something, anything to be perfect enough. It is a deliberate assault on our senses and our morality. The victims are recyclable – an unending chain of not-quite-pleasing-enough blondes. We long for a kill to finally feel like enough. We turn on a pin, just as he does. It’s an unclean sort of feeling.
Bateman himself is truly self-created (“I simply am not there.”) – the absence of experienced reality and in fact the mimicry (or destruction) of that which he most admires. He does not have desire; but does he have compulsion? Being able to identify this feels somewhat pivotal to the process of understanding his motivation. He cannot identify a clear emotion in himself, yet there is such sadness in Matt Smith’s eyes that one cannot help but feel that here, perhaps, is a person who has looked into the gaping maw of capitalism and simply gone mad. He engenders pity. His is a desperate bid for visibility born of a lack of power and an utter, consuming fear not just of fitting in and keeping up but of feeling seen. One cannot help but feel sometimes that we may be only an Instagram and a nail gun apart.
Is Smith’s Bateman deliberately not a commanding presence? Is he determinedly unthreatening? We should not be looking at anyone else on the stage and yet sometimes the eye wanders. Bale’s Bateman was commanding and maniacal, though always quietly on the verge of total panic. Smith’s is more akin to the Bateman of Ellis’ book; ineffectual in his own life as others are promoted above him and his girlfriend has an affair, totally powerful over his murder victims but deriving no pleasure from it. Killing people is not just something to win at – to look upon their corpses and feel that yes, he is still better than them. He exudes no sense of power, though he clearly grasps for it. I can kill you – I can. To vaguely paraphrase a most disliked UK prime minister, you should never have to tell anyone that you are powerful or for that matter that you could kill them. He openly flaunts his desires and compulsions in a bid for acknowledgement but he does not feel like a madman; only a pitiably empty one. Is Patrick Bateman, Serial Killer, the embodiment of Bateman’s own desire for the purest of gratification or an empty grasp at potency?
Bateman’s compulsion to kill in this production is most interesting. Bale’s Bateman killed because he had no sense of proportion; a dislike of his prized Onica or failure to get a table at Dorsia constituted the greatest of crimes against his person. The sins of being less than perfect were enough. Though not pleasurable, there was a grim satisfaction in them, in staging one more small triumph against the imperfections of the world, against anything that sought to tear down the image of himself that he built up. For Smith’s Bateman, murders are passionless; they seem born of an idle boredom or irritation. There is a sense of dissatisfaction. Often he seems to perpetrate them simply because he can; to remind himself that he has agency, power, efficacy. Murder has more of the feeling of finally dispatching an annoying insect than statisfying a lust. Yet he is clearly not devoid of human compassion – he has an awareness of morality, he has simply established his own; constructed his version of right and wrong. He can know that he “almost hurt someone good” yet have no qualms about killing others he deems to be ‘bad’. Is it in fact a moral battle for him? It seems too dispassionate. One could argue that his is the ultimate gratification; a designer hobby. Each person can only be killed once and his is the exclusive pleasure. Here is an area in which he can outdo those with identical yet somehow better business cards.
Harron claims that the emptiness at Patrick’s core drives him crazy, that he is in a constant state of panic and always on the verge of falling apart, yet Smith’s Bateman seems calm. A little angry when the perfect image he has created is disrupted or outdone, but calm. There is no sense of a man almost careering out of control; merely one with a compulsion to feed and no idea how to react to or engage with anything in reality, simply the ability to successfully mimic those around him and their emptiness.
“There is no finish at the finish line” – his is a world with no final prize in sight, with ever shifting goal posts and the constant pursuit of keeping up with everyone around him; a momentum that excludes any idea of the world outside. He spouts disconnected newspaper headline philosophies but can triangulate the position of a good restaurant more easily than discuss the politics of the Middle East. Bateman prides himself on having opinions about art and music and culture that he has collected, like the pieces themselves, not formed. He trots out diatribes about Huey Lewis and the News like a perfectly learned caricature, tries on moral viewpoints like he tries on clothes until he finds those that are fashionable or convenient or suitably sensational. There is a sense that murder may be his only creation; everything else is copied from those around him. Harron’s assessment that he watches tapes to understand how to have sex and how to kill seems an apt one. His is a crisis of being on the cusp of adulthood, with no understanding of his own life or what is happening in it. It is the disappointment of growing up and realizing that nothing greater awaits; there is no higher purpose than the rat race.
American Psycho: The Musical feels, more than anything, like a bid to feel something. Though the world has moved on from the early nineties of Ellis’ book; the bubble of wealth and isolation that he depicted still lives. Young people with more money than they sensibly know what to do with, on the cusp of adulthood, dissolve into a world of fractured relationships, designer gear and designer drugs in an attempt to feel anything. It’s a dirtier, darker, more destructively nihilistic Made in Chelsea. Bateman’s difference is that he feels nothing to begin with; try though he may to emulate those around him, he is copying hollow entities. He will try on anything in a bid to feel; sex – I’ll try that. Fashion – I’ll try that. Coke – I’ll try that. Murdering and mutilating a prostitute – I’ll try that. Marriage – why not?
The extremes of violence that occur in the book are only effective in the book. They were discarded for the film adaptation and they remain discarded here; there is something so much more interesting to be said by a serial killer that you somehow, inexplicably and so questionably can empathise with, than one whose every act utterly appalls you. As hopefully reasonably adjusted human beings, there is only so much violence you can be exposed to without feeling sick. Ellis’ work was one of masterful satire; but it would be unfair to claim that the deadpan monotone elaboration of acts of torture would translate well to the delicate satire that Goold is trying to achieve here. Placing a person on a stage is a world away from having them leap out from the pages of a book. A production would be all the more fascinating for achieving this, and I would be intrigued to see how I would feel as an audience member, but I am not certain that it’s possible, and not within the context of this particular production.
Where the book offers a genuine insight into Bateman’s head, although this is perhaps rendered more disturbing by the fact that his internal monologue is equally dispassionate, the film and the musical only treat us to the image of himself that he presents to the world. His narrative is a perpetual show and, as such, there is a level on which it makes sense for its representation to be showy, self-constructed, Trumanesque.
I wasn’t sent to review American Psycho; I bought my own ticket and then found that I had an overwhelming compulsion to write about it. How appropriate. It is one of those productions that inhabits the brain. It doesn’t lend itself to a neat summary as it is impossible to conclude that American Psycho deals with or achieves any one thing. It fundamentally interrogates the dualism of mind and body, and the Western obsession with the body as fallible, malleable, to be controlled and manipulated at the expense of divorcing it from the mind. It shows us our obsession with appearance. It asks questions about masculinity. It is a living portrait of the quarter life crisis. Through murder, objectification, impersonal sex, an endless stream of fad foods, fashion and the punishing pursuit of physical perfection we recoil, squirm, lean imperceptibly forward and in rare flashes, recognise ourselves. Bateman feels clean. We leave feeling a little bit dirty.