THE AMERICAN PILOT
Soho Theatre + Writersí Centre, London W1
Opened 29 March, 2006
****

David Greigís play, seen in Stratford last spring and now visiting London as part of the RSCíS New Work Festival, at first seems far removed from his characteristic oblique approach. Most obviously, it is about the clash of cultures between the United States and an unspecific mountainous Middle Eastern region. A farmer and his family, a local trader, the area's warlord and his more ideological lieutenant all have to negotiate a cultural-moral maze following the discovery of the crash-landed, injured airman of the title.

However, as often with Greig it becomes a matter of the ways in which we articulate and/or interrogate our ideas. For much of the first half, characters all seem to be trying to formulate large concepts that their words cannot pin down: the Captain (David Rintoul), describing how they could not understand any intelligence data the Pilot might possess, says, "You may as well interrogate a word about the meaning of a sentence." Yet as the play progresses, these half-grasped abstracts are tested against pragmatic speculations, as the locals try to decide the best course of action: return the American, ransom him or kill him, and in each case (and from each individualís own perspective), why?

The Captain has almost lost a sense of ideology to underpin what he does and cannot explain the basis of his conduct but continues to try to act in the best interests of his people. His lieutenant the Translator, driven by ideology but likewise unable to articulate it, recounts in the most telling speech of the play his experiences of America as if it were both heaven and hell at once. The farmerís daughter exhibits a home-brewed mixture of young love and religious fervour. And all the while, we in the audience are being tested as to how well we see past the stars and stripes to the more nebulous issues and then back to the immediate matter of the wounded airman, as America itself becomes the greatest example of this tangle of abstracts and practicalities.

In Ramin Gray's detailed yet unfussy production, actors sit upstage when not performing, occasionally adding musical accompaniment together with Ali Shahsavari on santur. Itís a particular pleasure to see Paul Chahidi and Jonathan Slinger, each of whom recently made a mark in the RSCís London season of Shakespearean comedies, each cutting a much grimmer figure here as the Translator and the Trader respectively.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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