Former Royal High School, Edinburgh – until 27 May 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
The Attic Collective’s War in America is passionate, emotional and committed – but not over-earnest, and certainly not polite. The second production by this company for young performers set up by the Festival City Theatres Trust, continues to fulfil the promise shown by their excellent Lysistrata.
Like that production, this is a resolutely political affair that eschews any attempts at neatness. Jo Clifford’s 1996 play, rejected by both the Lyceum and Traverse at the time, is now given a belated premiere. It seems ominously prophetic in its vision of a declining Europe, an America riven by religious extremism, unrest, and increased surveillance – not to mention terrorism and a government’s eager use of draconian powers to combat it.
The parliament of the decaying European state depicted is said to be a ‘replica of the temple of reason’ – and, if nothing else, it is intriguing to see this production performed in the former Royal High School, still kitted out as the parliament it never became. Director Susan Worsfold makes imaginative use of the space and the impressive young members of The Attic Collective.
The political divisions are shown as being along gender lines, with Saskia Ashdown’s She, a reluctant candidate for the premiership haunted by events in her past, being a lucid and humane characterisation, superbly backed up by Kirsty Punton and Ellen Aitken as her aides Ms Warp and Ms Webb.
Andrew Cameron, meanwhile, gives frightful life to the Home Secretary Mr Fox. His character, and his dealings with Imogen Reiter’s apparently helpless Romanian prostitute, are at the heart of the warnings of ‘scenes of a sexual nature that some people might find offensive’ that mean this production is categorised as strictly 18-plus.
What is most offensive about these scenes is the way that they depict the apotheosis of the free market in which Fox so fervently believes – the freedom, for those who have money and power, to indulge their every whim at the expense of those who lack those advantages.
Despite the many warnings, this is probably less ‘in your face’ than the Collective’s previous production of Lysistrata. Recent events may make the sight of automatic weapons in the debating chamber all the more disturbing, but the apocalyptic subject matter is shot through with a profound humanity, and remorse rather than vituperation is the primary emotion.
This is aided by the performances, which give a rounded quality to the most offensive characters. The point about Andrew Cameron’s Fox is that he genuinely believes he is in the right, which makes his contention that ‘the state cannot commit terrorist acts’ more chilling.
Conor McLeod’s Mr Slype, a shilpit, sleekit politician is all too recognisable in his confusion and self-justification, while John Spilsbury’s elder statesman Wisden, who just wants to sleep off his regrets, makes that very difficult task of a young performer portraying an old person look effortless.
Mark O’Neill’s put-upon adviser Alfred, meanwhile, conveys a great deal of emotion from comparative stillness, while Malachi Reid’s mysterious Muntu has a similar quiet fascination.
A couple of performances are more like caricatures, but this is not the fault of the actors. While it is an endlessly intriguing piece, there are some points where it does threaten to lose its way – notably, in the second half, too many speeches come close to preaching and seem to be the writer’s view rather than the characters’. It is noticeable that many of the themes dealt with here have been revisited more succinctly by Clifford since – notably in the magnificent evocation of hard-won hope that is The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven.
Mention must be made of Cait Irvine and Charlie West’s music. While there must have been a temptation to illustrate the subject matter with shrill bombast, loud sirens and egregious noise, they have gone completely the other way and it is all the better for it. Spare, plangent and mournful use of violin, mandolin and drum make even the ringing of a phone sound achingly and sadly human.
This reflects the whole production. What sounds like it should be an immensely loud and angry explosion of nihilism is actually more of a quiet plea for tolerance, a belief that a better world can somehow be born out of the contradictions, inequalities and downright disgust of the current one.
That may seem even further away than it did in 1996, but the message here is that love can be stronger than hate, and hope can by more powerful than despair – and, most importantly, more powerful than sullen apathy. That The Attic Collective convey this so effectively is further proof of how important a feature of the current theatrical scene they have become in such a short space of time.