Chicago | ‘The Herd’, Almost Lost in Translation

Based on reviews from both sides of the pond, I think it is safe to say Chicagoins are a bit more generous than the Brits.

Steppenwolf‘s production of Rory Kinnear’s ‘The Herd‘ seems to be receiving four stars and above; in London, it’s mainly threes. And plenty of criticisms. Sorry, Chicago, but I’m afraid I have to side with Blighty on this one.

The Herd, SteppenwolfEchoing sentiments from many a review, this was not a groundbreaking play. Clichéd ideas of a dysfunctional family, their tensions and an absent father, all centred around a disabled son’s 21st. Name the first five clichés that come to mind below – I guarantee they were in this. For the few praises that can be said for this play – craft of the dialogue, set construction, and the cast almost fully grasping the patter of British delivery – the biggest melon in the room that no review I have read so far will discuss… The accents.

My greatest fear as a writer is handing my work to another company. Not out of some deep-rooted need to control beyond the page, but because the majority of my work so far is written in Scots or require a particular accent en mass. ‘The Herd’ only allayed some of those fears.

If you can’t maintain an accent for longer than a few words, why persist? Someone must notice in the rehearsal room – practice makes perfect, but near perfection is better. One Englishman on the stage (John Mahoney), and even he couldn’t hold it together because he left the country before he was twenty. A lone bad accent is one thing; six is overkill, as it affected basic elements of the play, such as pronunciation. The mother kept talking about her son’s carer as “Muracahra” – turns out “cahra” was the actor’s way of saying “carer” with a pan-RP accent. (I still don’t know what “mura” was meant to be – any takers?).

The other reason for this vent came thirty minutes into the play: the boyfriend. My partner was born in the same city as Mahoney – Blackpool – and was raised in Lancaster. His is not the thickest of Lancashire accents, but its there. The boyfriend in the play? Lancastrian. Via Yorkshire. Through a funnel that sieved out the accent, leaving dubious precipitate that even Emmerdale would have questioned. For the US readers, Game of Thrones (I think? I don’t watch GoT). Much though I don’t want to, I have to raise the issue of accents because a) I saw the play in America so I’d imagine it’s easily overlooked, but b) no reviews are picking this atrocity of craft up. Not one! Well, ok one, but all it said was “dodgy“. A for effort, D for execution.

Using a safe idea as your first play is a smart, if dull, plan. It appeals to the masses, tugging at the heartstrings of an audience’s moral highground – yes, Daddy is a bad man for walking out, let’s all boo him from our pedestal, and the daughter has every right to still be behaving like a pre-teen in her thirties. For all the decent one-liners, bad characters and predictable outcomes are bad characters and predictable outcomes. This play does not delve any further than “Dad left and our suffering is his fault, look at what we sacrficed”. It bemoaned the Mother’s overinvolvement in caring for her son, to the point of illness and exhaustion, but barely even touched on the prospect that she might be selfish in the act of selflessness. Only the father dared to challenge her on it, which in turn was his reason for leaving. But of course, you can’t possibly call a martyr mother selfish, especially not absent Daddy – remember, it’s all his fault, guys, let’s not delve into the why, there’s no way it was justified. So let’s play this broken record for the rest of the hour just to make sure the audience gets it.

Attempting the accents added nothing to the plot (but A for effort, the daughter and father were almost there). Unless successful, adaptation of accents for the locale makes more sense than trudging on anyway – switch Brighton for any cheap gay city/town with a pier, for example.
Ultimately, ‘The Herd’ was predictable, safe, and I would imagine had this come from any other name, it would have been put in the No pile.

‘The Herd’at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, IL


11 thoughts on “Chicago | ‘The Herd’, Almost Lost in Translation

  1. I’ve heard good things about this play, though I have no desire to go to Chicago to see it. Based off of your review, I feel like the play isn’t as good as I’ve been hearing that it was.

    • Ach, it’s dependent. It’s not that there aren’t good moments, this just wasn’t as great a production as it should have been, and I have a problem with big names getting attention over mediocre plays. If they’d just decided American accents all around, and altered the UK town names to appropriate US ones, it would have been less distracting – when the boyfriend started to speak, I had to fight back a very strong urge to laugh.

      As for the script itself – even if I’d watched this back in London, I’d still have a problem with it. It’s the kind of play that doesn’t require much brain space, and always seems to have its praises sung – a bit like plays where children have opinions, and people fall over themselves saying “that’s so true, we should listen to children more”. Personally, I don’t find living room dramas interesting, and struggle to understand why people desire that level of relatability so badly (“wow, that’s just what MY Mum does, too!”), largely because they’re really hard to do well and make interesting.

      Tl;dr, see it anyway if you get the chance. You might find it easier to ignore the accents, I just couldn’t because British and cynicism :)

      • When our employees from the UK were in the US for a conference, they said I’d fit in better with them than I do here. Apparently I’m on par with British levels of cynicism.

      • I’d have to second that, it’s a bang on observation. Although I now have this image of a ship full of Brits searching out the cynics of the globe.

      • I’m more than happy to let you all take me away. That said, I don’t feel as though the fiancee would be particularly happy. She’s already skeptical of how attractive I find women with British/Scottish/Welsh/Irish accents.

      • …Sounds to me like you might be marrying a cynic, which can only mean one thing – bring her with you! We’re much less attractive in person, honest.

      • I’m not sure I agree with that. High percentage of redheads + alluring accents + the willingness to actually be sorry for things + full English breakfast + a great healthcare system = happiness.

      • Redheads and healthcare are not the first things I’d pride the UK on, but we’ll take whatever we can get!

      • Considering the improvement in healthcare in terms of the UK compared to the US, as well as the higher percentage of redheads, I’d take pride in it.

  2. I really enjoy your writing, and it’s fascinating to be getting schooled a bit in what’s good and what’s not so good in a production, what make the production good/less than good. Just learning a bit of the language/ terms used to speak about, or to critique a production, is interesting to me. Thank you. :)

  3. Pingback: Chicago | Resumed Programming | Laidig's Broadway


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