Hampstead Theatre, London – until 16 July 2016
REBELLION AND REALITY IN A SKEWED WORLD
God bless a playwright you can’t predict. Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III was founded on a pretty simple idea, and a frankly rather jejune imagining about the Royal family; it transferred up West and to America amid huge plaudits. This one by contrast is rich in important, complex ideas and riskily surreal conversations, and is most unlikely to transfer: not least because of a certain extraordinary, unexpected technical coup de theatre in the last ten of its hundred minutes. Only a detailed scan of the credits will give you any clue to that. So good for Mr Bartlett, and for his director James Macdonald, who keeps even the more oddly structured conversations watchable; and let us add a bouquet of freshly-picked hydraulics and spanners for designer Miriam Buether and the techies.
Bartlett draws inspiration from the Edward Snowden case, but it is no bio-play: rather, he is gripped by the odd novelty of this particular “traitor”s position. You don’t need to be a Philby or Burgess these days: one day you’re a quiet , nerdy ordinary chap working at a screen and eating at KFC with your girlfriend yet within a week you’re an exile in a hotel room in Moscow. Your passport’s gone, you’ve no status anywhere on the planet, your own country threatens the electric chair , and the world is in turmoil over your revelations about secret government surveillance which has, in a digital age, crept up on us all. What you have done is unprecedented, huge, shocking, risky to all. “The USA” observes one of his interlocutors matily “doesn’t have a proportionate punishment for this..you only have one life”.
She also muses on the likelihood of the hero Andrew – Jack Farthing, who is credibly half-defiant and half-scared throughout – killing himself, as people often do when in a position which defines them forever. She cites Dr David Kelly and the nurse who took the spoof call about the Duchess of Cambridge. “Never to be known for anything else, for art or music or sport or charity…”. Daunting.
Two interlocutors visit Andrew’s bland hotel room, with its cut-off phone and confiscated laptop. The woman – Caolfhionn Dunne – is foxy in black, irritatingly provocative, deliberately confusing; we are never sure if she is Russian at all, for she seems to be Cambridge-English. The man , who at first denies having heard of her, is dourer, pointing out that Andrew is now a prime assassination target. Gradually the leaker’s naive idealism is mocked, challenged, stripped: we reflect on the extraordinary fact that digital information and its handlers can create a situation where the key, massive leaker might not actually be very bright or politically savvy. The dubious moralities of the modern age seep through: the USA, says the woman matily, has lost its USP of good behaviour and is “a spy state, a torture state, a terrorist”. The man (John Mackay, beautifully lugubrious) points out the paradox that democracy requires security, but then undermines itself with the surveillance needed for that security – “there are things that have to be done in the dark, to protect society, that society does not want to hear about”.
There is a wonderfully creepy thoughtfulness about it; but gradually the political points ,as the confrontations go odder, are shaved away until we are in a Beckettian, Pinterish, surrealism with a side order of Schroeding and existential doubt about the nature of reality itself. And you start to think, “ho hum, this is all Philosophy Club chatter”… but then the extraordinary coup de theatre happens, and that’s a real treat. And is quite possibly the reason they had to delay the press night by three days. Well worth it.
Box office: 020-7722 9301 to 16 July
rating Four. The fourth is technical. Oh yes. The mouse that ran up the grandfather clock…you’ll see what I mean.