Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 23 April 2017
Theatre is all about stories and performance, but when the two turn in on themselves things can get messy and out of control – as His Final Bow, this week’s lunchtime theatre at the Traverse, shows.
In Peter Arnott’s splendid account of the final hours of John Wilkes Booth, the actor who murdered President Lincoln, the two are shown so entangled and engorged that the performance of the play is like the lancing of a particularly pressing and engorged boil. The two hander is a simple piece, suitably quick and memorable for the lunchtime theatre slot. Booth and co-conspirator Davey Herold are holed up in the tobacco barn where Booth is to meet his demise, on the run from the Unionist Blue Coats after the murder.
Cleverly weaving the facts of Booth’s life and the assassination itself in with the unknown, undocumented hours after Booth and Davey fled to the barn, Arnott creates a festering stew of Booth’s arrogance fed by blind adoration with his attempt to change the story of America’s rejection of slavery.
James MacKenzie’s depiction of Booth is of a man who has lost all understanding of the distinction between real life and performance. MacKenzie rarely drops below pompous declamation but always, because of the character and situation, has the truthful edge of naturalism about him. Alex Pthenakis creates in Davey, a star-struck acolyte who attempts to provide succour and help to his hero, but is almost completely ignored by a man who is so self-obsessed to be delusional. His awe is that of an audience member who doesn’t quite realise he is no longer in his seat at the theatre, but has entered real life.
All this is fine and fascinating in itself – a little historical bonne bouche which has an undercurrent of warning to any actor who might become lost in the moment of their character and fail to leave them behind in the theatre.
But when Arnott drops what could be dismissed as a silly little aside from Davey about creating “false news”, he signals that his sites are on much more than a historical killing – and the whole becomes ripe for a reading that gives it a rather more contemporary relevance.