Sing, O muse, of the rage of McEnroe, American tennis prodigy, who brought countless ills upon the racquets of Dunlop. And why not? Is this tormented serve-and-volley genius not the nearest thing we have to a warrior-hero of the post-industrial age?
I Heart John McEnroe is more self-contained comic doodling than epic song cycle, but the link between passion and success is very much to the fore. Can you separate the wild mood swings of Achilles from his preternatural skill in battle? Or are they both part of the same gift? And with John McEnroe? Can you have the sublime power and perfect timing without the violent hissy fits?
And what about us? What do we sacrifice when we suppress our anger? Do we deny ourselves some vital creativity? Is there any way to access that energy without making a public spectacle of ourselves? And does success justify the isolation which uninhibited anger demands?
Director Clare Watson and her troupe plunge into this hazardous territory without any plan beyond impersonation and improvisation. It’s a noble adventure, but they nevertheless end up lost in ’80s nostalgia. I Heart John McEnroe is a mash of pop references, old gossip and devised chaos, free-form postdramatics elevated by occasional choreographic brilliance. It’s funny, smart, eye-catching stuff; but limited, wilfully superficial, and never figuring beyond the plainest representation of anger and frustration.
Jonothan Oxlade’s set is astonishingly good. He transforms the vast Theatre W orks stage into half an indoor tennis court, with a net running the length of the first row, definitively separating the performers from the audience. All the details are perfect: the white grid, the blue and green of rebound ace, the romance of tennis paraphernalia, umpire’s chair, courtside seating, ball machine, racquets and baskets full of tennis balls. It’s a true playground.
But to be clear, this isn’t a tennis story, or the story of John McEnroe. Audiences won’t come away with any better appreciation of his athletic achievements, nor any real insight into his personal life or psychology. The show opens with a rapid round of John Mac trivia — where he was born, when he was married, who his main rivals were — and that’s about as deep as we go. This show is really about the artists and their personal experiences with frustration. John McEnroe is just a mask they each wear, a way of overcoming their inhibitions.
There are three McEnroes to begin with: Katherine Tonkin, Luke Mullins and Bert LaBonte. Tonkins, however, is heavily pregnant, and soon calls for a substitute, Natasha Herbert. Most of the early scenes are about stimulating interpersonal conflict, each McEnroe provoking the next. These loose and spiky episodes are structured alongside rather pretty synchronised and stylised repetitions of McEnroe’s most famous on-court meltdowns, all set to booming ’80s soundtrack.
All the performers have signed on for harsh treatment. LaBonte gives us Arthur Ashe, the first African-American to win a grand slam and McEnroe’s Davis Cup captain. The other three harry him with exaggerated race-baiting. It’s discomforting, but not entirely convincing, being so mingled in with period nostalgia. Would mean girls as sophisticated as Mullins, Tonkins and Herbert be so boorish and obvious in their racism? Morgan Freeman? Gary Coleman? It’s hard to believe LaBonte is really piqued by all this play-acted hate.
More comedy follows, skewering McEnroe’s celebrity, with bitchy little impersonations of Tatum O’Neil, Madonna and Andy Warhol. Natasha Herbert does a wicked Lady Diana, but you wonder what it’s all for.
Why, they ask, are we encouraged to suppress our anger? Because angry people are unlikeable? Because rage suggests war, violence, disharmony and hatred? Exceeding civilised bounds? Imagine Luke Mullins stalking around the court, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band cranked up to eleven, his face distorted by sneering, celebrating his own outrages. It’s sad, more than anything, when you’re on the other side of the net.
Sadness is all through this piece. It’s a wistful kind of sadness. The cultural nostalgia connects with a yearning for youthful exuberance, for the inspired outrage of the young. What have we missed in life by always compromising and retreating? As Chris Nealon writes:
I’d been feeling bad about the way my fear of anger
had so poorly equipped me for any kind of
the way I always want to skip Joan Jett and get
right to the Luther Vandross—
John McEnroe, the young John McEnroe, was all for Joan Jett.
He was, according to David Foster Wallace, the most talented, the most beautiful, the most tormented. A tragic genius? Ian McKellen studied tapes of his on-court tantrums while rehearsing the role of Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s volatile Roman champion. The attraction of such a vibrant figure is undeniable.
And yet, Clare Watson seems less interested in the tragic aspect — that is, the impossibility of immortality, of being number one forever — than the flattened image of McEnroe as rage-meme, as an abstract symbol for all frustration. But not all anger is the same. Jeff Tarango lost his tennis cool in spectacular fashion, but his was the rage of a man who never got beyond the third round of a grand slam, and knew he never could.
You wonder how much sympathy these artists have for the sheer excess of McEnroe’s talent. This is a smallish piece of work. The risks and acts of self-exposure which it promises are obscured by the jokey, playful atmosphere and fuzz of retro-sentimentality. Perhaps an I Heart Jeff Tarango is nearer to the essence of what they’re doing.
And yet there are elevations of spirit. The young Ivy Miller, who plays chair umpire, ball girl, post-match interviewer and a ten-year-old Tatum O’Neal is an endearing presence throughout, but she goes above and beyond in the final moments, bringing the play to a fine conclusion, and one worth waiting for.
There is plenty to enjoy in I Heart McEnroe. It is bright and funny and, yes, at times touched with melancholy.