Cockpit Theatre, London
It’s every inventor’s worst nightmare: the idea that their creation could fall into the wrong hands. And if that creation is then used to cause harm, how much responsibility should the inventor be expected to bear for the consequences?
This is the central question of Joe Penhall’s Landscape with Weapon, first seen in 2007 and now revived by director Jason Moore of OnBook Theatre. Ned (Danny Szam) is a self-styled “mad genius” who’s come up with a new military technology that he believes will reduce civilian casualties through its deadly accuracy. But as he comes under pressure to sign a government contract and relinquish the intellectual property behind his invention, Ned starts – somewhat belatedly, you could argue – to worry about the possible implications.
That moment of realisation comes after discussions with his brother, Dan (James Robinson), a dentist who seemingly has everything Ned doesn’t – the wife, the kids, the mortgage. With a bit of persuasion, and despite having signed the Official Secrets Act, Ned reveals to his brother what he’s been working on, and the moral high ground shifts rapidly as Dan – who just moments before was bragging about the ethically dubious sideline in botox that’s about to pay for his new swimming pool – reacts with instant horror.
Even then, Ned sticks to his guns, stubbornly insisting that because his own intentions are honourable, any unintended consequences of letting his invention out into the world can hardly be pinned on him. And herein lies the play’s biggest flaw: while his viewpoint might be reasonable if he’d invented something inherently innocuous, Ned’s about to sell weapon technology to the Ministry of Defence, and his lack of foresight is at best unrealistic, at worst downright alarming. Considering how many times we’re reminded of the character’s intelligence, it’s difficult to believe he’d never before considered any of the qualms that become so important to him in Act 2.
That aside, the stage is now set for an interesting and often topical debate, and it’s presented by a strong cast, who do their best with some at times unnecessarily dense material. Commercial director Ross (Suzy Bloom) tries every trick in the book to convince Ned to sign, but their conversations go so deeply into the ins and outs of government business contracts, controlling shares and intellectual property law that it can be difficult to stay focused.
The Act 2 arrival of sinister intelligence man Brooks (Malcolm Jeffries) takes us in a slightly different direction and raises the tension nicely, before a late twist in the tale sets the stage for a dramatic finale that never quite comes to pass. That said, the play’s deliberately muted and open-ended conclusion is, in its own way, quite haunting.
Set designer Ian Nicholas largely lets the script do the talking, with the action taking place on a minimally furnished stage covered in inventor’s scribbles. There’s some great work too from Jonny Danciger, whose effortlessly naturalistic sound effects (including a rather too convincing off-stage bathroom visit) give way to total silence in Act 2 as the suspense begins to build.
Though not without its flaws, Landscape with Weapon asks some interesting and uncomfortable questions, and ultimately proves that when it comes to morality, right and wrong are not always as clear-cut as we might like them to be.
Landscape with Weapon is at the Cockpit Theatre until 18th September.
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