On Friday night, I went to see 'American Psycho' at the Almeida Theatre. I went along with high expectations and left largely satisfied. Patrick Bateman remains one of the truly iconic literary figures. A cultural icon for a generation bereft of meaning and anxious for the reflective details of a polished chrome surface or large glass table to fill in the gaps of living.
I read the novel, 'American Psycho' years ago and since then, I have read the rest of Bret Easton Ellis' work. He has a unique voice. He captures the madness of our age, the 'buy now, pay later' philosophy that permeates the lives of the under 40s. His novels are permeated with characters who can be understood but not liked. In 'American Psycho', the reader is confronted by vapid smiles, possession hungry creatures, anxious for their next expensive meal in the current trendy restaurant, mistaken identities and a unique range of business cards. Patrick Bateman is no better or worse than any of the other twenty something investment bankers who populate the novel. If anything, his response is the most honest to the apathetic accumulators who dance repeatedly to the same old tune who have sex simply to remind themselves that they still live and breathe. Love is a joke to be sold or represented in a three minute single. Attention spans are limited. Lives more profitably abused than celebrated. Dancing around white lines, shooting up to break down the boundaries of diffidence.
The film of 'American Psycho' by Mary Harron felt oddly lacking the first time I saw it in the cinema. A very sanitised adaptation of the novel. The casting of Christian Bale was an inspired choice and despite such over-the-top sequences as Bateman running around with a chainsaw, in retrospect, it still warrants a watch. It captures the essential truth of the novel. The horror is in the lifestyle choices and the fantasies that they engender. I have vague recollections that the ending although slightly different to the end of the novel succeeds in making the point, if it didn't happen, it soon could. 'This is not an exit' is one of the most desultory lines in any cultural product.
Since my exposure to the novel and film of 'American Psycho' and also to Bret Easton Ellis' other works, I have met the author twice at talks/signings at the Southbank Centre in London. During the Q and As after the talks, the author has had to field the usual questions regarding the so-called 'misogyny' in 'American Psycho'. He wisely rebuffs such accusations. In defence of Bret Easton Ellis, his characters are by their nature regularly superficial, unfeeling and driven by base instincts. I have never felt that he treats his female characters any worse than his male ones. They are not gentle, unrealistic, sentimentalists, they are archetypes of a vicious world where tearing apart small businesses in order to allow large companies to flourish and grow is part and parcel of everyday life. Mergers and acquisitions are not coital, they regularly result in destruction. Another thing that I noticed at one of the talks/signings was the entourage that Mr Ellis had. At one point, a slightly highly strung lady squealed rather loudly about how much longer the signing was going to take. Bret Easton Ellis as he has pointed out is part of the culture he seeks to dissect. He lives the life of a wealthy decadent but with one difference, he addresses the problems that this causes him. He does it through his writing.
The musical of 'American Psycho' at the Almeida Theatre is directed by Rupert Goold. It is a revelation. Its success and failings return to one question, do you like Patrick Bateman and if so, do you feel that he can be saved? The novel and film can be interpreted in any number of ways, although the novel certainly does not want you to walk away with a warm sentimental feeling. If the murders have not happened, they soon could and that's the scariest thought of all. The film implies the same. The musical achieves a similar effect but in a way that left me feeling even more empathetic towards Patrick Bateman's character. He marries if only in a dream and his choice of bride will ruin him. Marriage without love will ruin Bateman and the body parts will amass because of this fact. It will be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.
One of the strong points of this production of 'American Psycho' is the mise-en-scene. The stark clinical minimalism of an 80s apartment with videos lining the bookcases rather than books and one expensive work of art leaning to one side of the stage being one constantly used set. Bateman's apartment is a metaphor for the fragmentary life he leads. He doesn't need any objects with sentimental connections. He is constantly out at nightclubs, restaurants and at work. Lighting is used expressively to complete the concept created by the sets. At points in the production where Bateman's thoughts become particularly murderous, projections to the side and back of the stage show childish images and more horrific sketched images.
The music is a combination of new songs with an 80s feel, synthesiser heavy and also songs from the same period performed by the cast, 'Don't You Want Me' being particularly impressive. As is the case with many musicals, lyrical or musical motifs repeat throughout this production. The first song called 'Clean' introduces Patrick Bateman, in a similar manner to how Bale appears in the film. Remember the eye mask as Christian Bale as Bateman comes out of the shower explaining his cleaning routine. The whole concept of 'cleanliness' as a complete rebuttal of anything impure or affecting within this musical becomes devastating. Patrick Bateman even has a slightly sympathetic side to his character possibly because he is played by Matt Smith and some of the lyrics of the songs. From my memories of the novel, Patrick Bateman's relationship with his secretary, Jean does not hold the seeds to his salvation that this musical tries to develop. It's curious how musicals need the simplicity of a love story or potential love story to hold the more unsavoury aspects of their narratives together. The Patrick Bateman of this production is therefore ultimately a tragic 'Everyman' figure.
To close, the characters, narrative and style of this musical remain close to the original novel, even where the narrative slightly veers towards the optimistic. It deserves to be more widely seen. A West End transfer should happen in the New Year. It is time for the West End to start to celebrate new productions. 'This is not an exit'.
Barry Watt - 22nd December 2013.
'American Psycho' is currently on at the Almeida Theatre but other than Day Seats and Returns, it is sold out until the end of the season.
The novel of 'American Psycho' by Bret Easton Ellis is a cheery little read for those of us slightly jaded by a diet of superficiality and vacant smiles. It is currently published by Picador. The line 'This is not an exit' is copyrighted to Bret Easton Ellis and appears in 'American Psycho'.
The film of 'American Psycho' by Mary Harron was released in 2000 and is available on DVD. It works up to a point as a film.
'Don't You Want Me' is copyright to the Human League and remains one of the most iconic 80s songs.