The Death of Norman Tortilla
Venue: Tristan Bates Theatre !a Tower St, Covent Garden, London, WC2H 9NP
One sparsely furnished uninviting room, plastered with images from popular gossip magazines; one old man (Norman Tortilla) sitting in his armchair, fixedly gazing to his left at presumably the pictures on the wall opposite; one very athletic, good-looking foreign care worker (Jack) who comes like clockwork to bathe and put clean clothes on Norman and one frightened but conniving young woman (Tandie) whose past misfortunes continue to impede her progress. This is the setting and the characters who are brought together in the play and who become the focus for the audience in confronting some extremely difficult questions about the human yearning for intimacy, leaving a sense of legacy and creating relationships which can sustain individuals in times of need.
In the first silent moments of the play the lights come up on an old man looking decidedly solitary and shabbily dress. The hundreds of faces on the collages mounted on the surrounding walls and cupboards make him look even more isolated. The effect was also for me slightly absurd, created by an incongruity fuelled by my prejudice that gossip magazines are mostly read my young women and bored housewives. The mismatch seems to tie in with the effeminate characterisation of Norman as an ‘old queen’. However, after a while that part of his character seems to be rendered as a mere comic device to soften and humanise his presentation. I imagine for a minute what Norman would seem like without the kind comments he makes from the ‘pop’ psychology he sources from the magazines about the lives of Peter Gabriel, David Beckham and other celebrities.
Clearly, the play has grabbed me as I continue to be disconcerted about Norman Tortilla’s character and situation. This doesn’t stop me however wondering about the hypothesis on which the drama is based. For instance, why would a man with such a rich imaginary life, full of beautiful celebrities, whom he defends vociferously, be so incapable of any kind of relationship with anyone? Indeed, how could such an entertaining ‘drama queen’ attract no interest from anyone? Is there a connection with Norman’s as a ‘drama queen’ and the need to record his life? Is that what he can’t remember? These are just some of the questions which remain unresolved for me as I watch Robert Gill’s animated and entertaining performance of Norman Tortilla as a spritely, protesting, obsessed creature claiming that someone…anyone… write down the events of his once promising life.
The questions keep coming at me about his situation. What does this vainglorious, solitary man require care? Should I assume he’s just demented or mentally deranged? If so, which reference to his mental state did I miss? This brings me to me consider the other characters in the play: Jack the ‘Slav’ care worker and Tandie the Switch Gas girl: Jack as a sporty, muscular type of East European with an antipathy for Norman and later Tandie, and the lusty Tandie the with a eye for Jack and an opportunistic attitude towards Norman.
All my questions lead me to more general questions the drama’s intended form. Should I view The Death of Norman Tortilla as absurd or just plainly cruel? There are many absurdist elements in the play: beginning with Norman karate kick that knocks out the very hearty, muscular Jack for over ten minutes, just in enough time for Tandie’s desperate entrance, her instant lust for Jack’s body, her plan to help Norman to tie him up in his armchair and then share a well-deserved cup of tea cake! Nothing, however, prepared me for the act of cruel that Jack exacts on Norman near the end of the play (which would not be fair to reveal). Jack’s behaviour throughout is the antithesis to that of any genuine carer: as a character, he seems inspired by the terrible stories of abusive carers recently vented in news reports on old people’s homes. His pushing and shoving around of Norman certainly calls up a social criticism about the quality of care to the most vulnerable. Moreover, nothing changes in the play except through acts of cruelty. Norman, Jack and Tandie take turns leading each other around through one violent act after another with no gains in the end: the message seems to be that there are worse things than death, as Jack story of the Nazi concentration camp reminds the audience.
The final moments of the play leads me then to see the play as a piece of ‘theatre of cruelty’ in which actors place before the audience the very difficult truth about alienated characters represented through age, social isolation and sexual abuse. I’m not totally convinced why Jack should have been characterised as an East European. The implications that he should be the carer in a system in which the English population is judged by him to be ‘shit’ seems to be almost another drama at work around Jack as the main character. Watching Norman Tortilla was for me like entering a Chamber of Horrors. I sat the whole time wishing that some small act of kindness might appear and relieve the cruelty before me on stage. The power to create that atmosphere was remarkable for such a young playwright, however, it was the questions of form which remained for me unresolved no matter how willing I was to come to know Norman Tortilla.
Reviewed by Josey De Rossi 23 March 2012
Norman Tortilla is billed alongside Jon Cooper’s A Lady Of Substance