In the end, Mel Smith does not light a cigar onstage: he selects one, fiddles with it and then allows himself to be distracted by the discussion he, as Winston Churchill, is conducting with leading Irish republican Michael Collins (Michael Fassbender, whose faith-and-begorrah accent I still cannot believe even now I know he grew up in Killarney).
Mary Kenny's play suggests that the British and Irish icons managed to strike a deal on what became the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 as a result of finding common human ground between two men, each of whom knew intimately the confusions of principle, realpolitik and simple flesh-and-blood considerations. It is derailed by two things. Firstly, director Brian Gilbert periodically takes to the stage to read out bridging passages akin to the bits of exposition which scroll up a cinema screen... why not put this information in the play itself? And secondly, the news story about Smith and his cigars comes to overshadow the scripted drama. At the performance I saw, Smith and Fassbender became (perhaps calculatedly) infected by audience laughter at Churchill's line, "I have little liking for these puritans who seek to curb us from drinking and smoking"; even the pre-show no-smoking announcement got a laugh. It has brought the punters in, but it would be nice if they paid attention to the play itself.
Downstairs in the Wildman Room, another fictional meeting takes place in Terre Haute, Edmund White's first stage play in a decade. White, intrigued by the real-life correspondence between America's leading literary gadfly Gore Vidal and Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh as the latter waited on death row, imagines Vidal travelling to McVeigh's Indiana prison to interview him before his execution. I think White intends the human dimension to be emphasised by contrast with the Vidal character's periodic analysis upon each party's tactics; in fact, it is undermined by the distraction, and further by an all-too-Whitean homoerotic climax which is entirely gratuitous in the dramatic rather than the moral sense. Nor is it surprising that old hand Peter Eyre so comprehensively dominates Arthur Darvill on the latter's first professional stage appearance, confined to a wire mesh cage as "McVeigh".
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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