The most important of the recent crop of political plays on the London stage opened last week. Not at the Tricycle, lately home to several challenging verbatim dramas like Guantánamo; not at Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre, reborn as a crucible for debate with such pieces as David Hare's Stuff Happens. The venue is the Orange Tree, an intimate in-the-round theatre in Richmond which usually plays to a genteel suburban audience. The play is Australian writer Stephen Sewell's coruscating indictment of American homeland security policies since September 11, 2001.
Sewell's tale of the violent, apparently official persecution of university lecturer Talbot Finch (for no reason other than his articulating some of the correspondences suggested in the play's title) is by no means perfect as a piece of drama. It's sometimes overwritten or clunky: two or three times I found myself sniggering at excessive lines such as "I couldn't see a door out of my own impotence" or "That might have made sense in a time before anthrax". It locates Finch's case in the context of family and faculty relationships, growing at times over-diffuse and invoking too many other dramatic reference points, from Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? to Mamet's Oleanna to any number of inquisitor/victim duets, as well as explicitly alluding to Kafka and Orwell. Above all, the character of Finch's friend Max – stupider, time-serving and ultimately a Quisling – allows so much easy laughter that on occasion the play threatens to enact precisely what it argues against.
For its case is that it's not just the horrific carte blanche given by the Patriot Act for secret detention and techniques akin to torture that is stifling American freedom, but the manufactured culture around it. It's easy, suggests Sewell, to dismiss those who worry about such abuses as being paranoid, or even as intent on destabilisation themselves. It's also hard to resist falling into patterns of self-censorship. (Think of all those TV stations which recently decided not to screen the expletive-dusted Saving Private Ryan for fear of subsequent licence renewal problems.) Thus, writing off this play as flawed and overdone would be a testimony to the reality of the cultural and political climate it depicts. And not just in America: the character of Finch, like the author, is Australian, and the play makes plain that as America goes, so shortly afterwards go all of our nations.
Sam Walters, as artistic director of the Orange Tree, knows exactly how to pitch productions in its space. Jonathan Guy Lewis is excellent as Finch, passing from glib liberalism to bloody hysteria to martyred defiance; nor would I ever have believed David Rintoul could be so outright menacing as he is here as Finch's anonymous, lapel-pin-sporting, pistol-whipping nemesis.
Unlike the plays I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Sewell's piece is not based on real words or events. Nevertheless, I am loath to call it a fable. After all, it deals with events not of recent history, and not behind barbed wire on an offshore installation, but in domestic America now. Best estimates are that more than 2000 people have been "disappeared" since the implementation of the Patriot Act. This, today, is the Land of the Free.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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