Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Opened 26 October, 2005

Kathy Burke is one of our best-loved actresses, not for being floaty and charming but rather gloriously no-bull.  In the last couple of years she’s all but given up acting in favour of directing, where she takes the same straightforward approach: get to the heart of the play, and do it service.  Her best directorial work has been with plays about things that matter. But this one is Political with a capital P.

Playwright Sam Shepard manages somehow to be at once an elder statesman and a maverick in the American theatre.  This play, which he described as a “take-off on Republican fascism”, was premièred in New York just before last year’s presidential elections, and there can be no doubting its target.  It’s about how patriotism, twisted into a have-a-nice-day brand of McCarthyism, is now used to justify various evils.

Wisconsin dairy farmers Frank and Emma are putting up a friend of Frank’s, who seems to have been driven a bit crazy by his work at some unspecified kind of hush-hush government establishment.  One morning, a smiling man in a suit arrives, offering stars-and-stripes knick-knacks and prying a little too closely, too menacingly, into matters.  Within an hour, he’s become a torturer, dictator, tyrant. But a patriotic one.

Its polemic is obvious. Shepard makes clear his hatred of the Republican right draping themselves in the flag.  But he manages to blend the diatribe with doses of surrealism and even a fair bit of humour along the way.  Runaway boffin Haynes at first seems to have a bad case of static electricity, but by the end there are blue flashes going off everywhere, symbolising the intensity of the battle of concepts.

Ben Daniels and Ewen Bremner dominate as man-in-black Welch and hysterical fugitive Haynes; Stuart McQuarrie and Lesley Sharp are the innocents drawn in, or press-ganged, into the conflict.  Burke shows the sureness of touch and the no-nonsense intelligence that are becoming her hallmark as a director.  It’s short, it’s strident, and agree or not, we surely need to guard our freedoms from being warped like this.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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