Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1
  Opened 20 May, 2009

Much of high culture still behaves sniffily towards “genre” work: horror, fantasy, science fiction. This is our loss, since many significant issues are dealt with earlier and better in genre work than in “legitimate” fields. For instance, the themes of Matt Charman’s play here – the consequences of breaching the principles of neutrality and non-interference when acting as an observer in a foreign culture – have been regularly treated in various Star Trek series ever since the “Prime Directive” was first formulated over 40 years ago, and treated with no less thoughtfulness and usually in around one-third of the playing time. Should we pay more attention to Charman’s take on the matter because it involves only a fictional west African country rather than a fictional planet? Should we find it more credible that, instead of having odd-sounding alien names, people and places here have no names at all but are referred to merely as “the president”, “the head of the military”, “the mountainous region”?
This is not to be dismissive of the play and production. Director Richard Eyre helms a tight ship, with Anna Chancellor impressive as the international election observer who Grows Too Involved and is then horrified to find that others recognise as much; her early-second-act impassioned outburst to a couple of villagers is crashingly unsubtle, but the further out of her character’s control matters move, the better Chancellor’s portrayal of someone who has lost touch with her task. As the young interpreter who is similarly idealistic but has to live with the effects of their conduct, Chuk Iwuji turns in a quality performance. Cyril Nri relishes a clutch of cameos from a bar owner to the aforementioned head of the military, and in a smart piece of casting, that personification of personableness James Fleet is a Foreign Office spook who combines Machiavellianism with banality in his reports back to London.
The play is about the emergence versus the imposition of values, Realpolitik versus principle, spin versus substance, and above all about consequences and the difference it makes when one has to stick around as they unfold. These are mature matters, but they are not fresh ones, and I’m afraid I’m unconvinced that the dark skins and use of the Igbo language here are a qualitatively different kind of exotica from bumpy foreheads and speaking in Klingon. Qapla’.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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