Bridge Theatre, London – until 26 October 2019
A glass conference-centre in the host nation France; a visiting US President avid for airstrikes after a terrorist outrage, demanding EU backing. The talks are on, but we are with the two first-ladies in lockdown in a side room. Demonstrators have soaked the US President’s glamorous lady with animal blood, shocking against her chic white suit. Aides bustle about, keen to spin the change of clothes into something patriotically symbolic. But mostly it is duel or duet between the two leads: a fine-drawn cool Zoe Wanamaker and a brilliant slow reveal by an utterly fascinating, masterfully restrained Zrinka Cvitesic.
In a tight 90 minutes Nancy Harris’ new play moves from a sharp, occasionally funny observation of this wifely condition into a meditation on politics both gender and global: under Nicholas Hytner’s tight directorial hand it rises to a chilling edge and neat final twist: a Tardis of a play, bigger than its size.
Harris fictionalises the first ladies well within current reality – Wanamaker’s Helen 24 years her French husband’s senior and once his teacher, but British-born and a former liberal journalist and speechwriter to her spouse although “little men with pencils” strike out her best lines. She is irritable at exclusion from the real power-game and the coming futility of a “Women’s Forum” dinner.
The US President’s younger lady (Cvitescic) is Sophia: East European, every inch a former model and soft-porn actress with her own steely dignity. Brilliantly telling is her calm peasant acceptance when she strips to her petticoat to clean herself up with a bucket and soap before shrugging on a clean frock. And, early on and startlingly, reveals that the perfume in her handbag is actually poison, for final “control” if she is kidnapped. It was from “friends”. Not the CIA. She comes of a harsher culture. This is one of the first of many moments when she rattles the composure of the sophisticated Helen, whose handbag has never held anything more practical than an argumentative book. Probably by a Guardian columnist.
The beauty of the women’s interaction lies in how this contrast widens into a meditation on the two Europes. On a personal level neither has a perfect marriage. One’s a trophy wife, the other aware of her younger husband’s infidelity but thinking she holds him by the intellect. But though both feel thwarted by patriarchy, on one side there is smug educated Western liberalism, and on the other a fierce Balkan practicality,. When Sophia flatly observes that men will always be able to humiliate women because they have the power, Helen splutters “not any more!”. Cvitesic’s eyes roll up.
For the US wife is clear-eyed, personally toughened by the brutality of rapist wars, knows she is seen as “the wrong sort of European” and an upstart tart. Yet as it turns out , politically she burns with a headlong Antigone spirit more powerful than the appalled Helen can share. A third grace-note of female exasperation comes when Lorna Brown’s vigorous Sandy, the US aide, is patronized by Helen and saltily observes that as a single mother with kids to raise she objects to being “talked down to by rich-ass liberal white women…while I save the asses of people with a lot more money and power who never say thanks” . Ouch. Perfect.
Box office: 0843-208 1846. to 26 October