Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh – until 11 February 2017
Tightly paced and with a solidly constructed script from West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin, Beam Theatre’s A Few Good Men has plenty to offer, at the Assembly Roxy to Saturday. It’s all built on a standard courtroom drama plot – albeit with military twist. When disinterested rookie lawyer Kaffee is sent to defend a couple of Marines in Guantanamo Bay, it looks as if he will doing little more than honing his plea-bargaining skills. But the presence of internal affairs lawyer Galloway would indicate otherwise.
Such predictability about the plot calls for a production that goes that bit further to stand out. And director Andra Roston certainly sets her stall out well with a cleverly immersive set by Machael Davies and Enrique Poves, which sees the audience arrayed in swivel chairs in the centre of the theatre and the scenes playing out around the edge of the room.
It is a sharp idea which allows the flow of the play to rise above Sorkin’s overly cinematic scene structure, without becoming bogged down in scene changes and the minutiae of set details. There could be a case for slightly raised positions, but on the whole the sight lines are fine and the scene changes are quick and to the point. Moreover, it adds an intimacy to the production as it means that nearly every audience member is sat in the front row at some point: up close and personal with the action.
Such intimacy demands strong performances from a cast who have plenty of material to fall back on. Not least the 1992 Rob Rainer adaptation for cinema, with Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore. Generally the required level of intensity is given. Abbeye Eva transcends the cliches of the script as Joanne Galloway, determined to make it onto the team defending the marines. Michael Davies is suitably complex as Daniel Kafee, son of a well-known liberal lawyer, trying to keep his head down and frightened of others’ expectations of him.
Best of the lawyers, however, is John Campbell’s Sam Weinberg, slightly older and better equipped to deal with court than Kafee. Campbell gives Sam a deep cynicism and understanding of process as he takes on the role of Kafee’s wing man. The three generally build up a strong rapport, one which makes you believe the courtroom and legal strands of the production.
It helps that Stewart Kerr is also excellent as Lance Corporal Harold Dawson, accused of murdering a fellow marine with Private Louden Downey (Adrian MacDonald). There is a real understanding of the caged tiger here, you feel that Dawson has a great physical violence inside him, capable of coming out if he wished – but he is obeying his orders and the unwritten code of the Marines to keep it suppressed.
Which is where the real meat of the play itself can be found – on trial here is not the tragic (and it seams accidental) death of a Marine, but the chain of command. Under question are the codes of honour by which the Marines live. They might be suitable for war, but are not sufficient to provide checks and balances to stop an abuse of power.
And unfortunately the production doesn’t quite get the military discipline, the sharpness of response and continuity of belief running through the whole military element of the show. For some (Kerr and MacDonald) it is there, but for their commanding officers it doesn’t ring quite as true as it needs to.
Steven Croall and David Grimes have very tricky roles to play. Croall as fundamentalist Christian, First Lieutenant Kendrick, and Grimes as the concerned liberal Captain Markinson. Both bring out the underlying characters well enough, more than ensuring that the backstory is consistent and adding to the two-dimensional cliches of the writing. What isn’t quite believable is that they are serving officers at Guantanamo Bay.
When it comes to the commanding officer of the base, Ian Fallon needs just that bit more complexity as Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessep. He has a sense of power to him, but not quite the sense of superiority. His diminishing of those around him feels like posturing rather than something from the bully inside. Crucially, his final speech is delivered as a scatter gun rant when, surely, it is the defining moment of the whole play; an opinion we treat as hysterical ranting at our peril.
That said, there is plenty to to pick over here in terms of examining the nature of chains of command. It is just that, at this time, it is a question which could have withstood a much more precise and directed interrogation.