PROMPT CORNER 01–02/2009
The Old Vic, London SE1
Opened 19 January, 2009

Sincerity, we are told, is the great thing: once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.  And fakery has been much on our minds this January, or at least something not entirely unrelated to it.  As most reviews mention in one form or another, the opening of Complicit at The Old Vic was postponed for over a week, and throughout previews and even after it had opened, actor Richard Dreyfuss was visibly wearing an earpiece through which he was rumoured to be receiving frequent prompts.


This is another instance in which the blogosphere proves its worth.  Bloggers such as the West End Whingers, not being constrained by press-night embargoes, can report on earlier performances and give us a fuller picture of what’s been going on.  (Supposedly professional reviewers such as Tim Walker, on the other hand, are so constrained, and are simply fouling their own nest and ours by flouting such embargoes.)  Mind you, this story made the news pages as well.  Reports emerged of Dreyfuss prowling around the stage as if lost, repeating lines several times until the next one came out (perhaps via the radio prompt).  Now, I didn’t see the production until the Saturday matinée after its rescheduled opening, but I can’t help wondering whether the folk behind those accounts simply aren’t all that familiar with Dreyfuss’s acting style.  I saw him doing nothing he hadn’t been doing since, say, the movie of The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz in 1974.  Nevertheless, it’s possible that he had been that unsure of his lines; the earpiece had to be there for a reason.  (One panellist on BBC’s Newsnight Review blithely compared it to the presence of a prompter in the wings; the difference, of course, is that a prompter is there in case, whereas such an earpiece – like the autocue used by Bruce Myers in his performances of The Grand Inquisitor in 2006 – can only be there because.)

I disagree, however, with those who dismiss Joe Sutton’s play entirely.  It had clearly been subjected to major revision: the version I saw ran for 25 minutes less than the programme claimed, and two entire characters in the cast list, the Interrogators, did not appear at all.  But the play I saw was not a dreadful piece of work.  What it was, is a poor choice for The Old Vic or for anywhere in Britain.  We tend to watch it in terms of Dreyfuss’s protagonist and what he thinks and feels, whereas this is secondary.  What one critic described as the “passable speechifying”  of the play is its real point.  It's America, stoopid.  This isn't a conflict, as it may seem to be, between the protagonist’s liberalism and his neoconservatism.  It's about the more basic subversion of core American values... more, of American identity.  This becomes much clearer in the second half, where there are several uses of the term “un-American”.  This isn't loading the term in an ideological debate within the framework of the American polity; it's addressing the ethical and moral basis of that polity itself, and how it was subverted or simply trampled by the Bush government.  And because we in Britain don't have that deeply conditioned perspective about such pervasive values that define our country and us as citizens, it doesn't connect with us.  It rests on a sense of nation and civics that we don't share; consequently, when its concerns are all bounded by and defined within that sense, we miss the basic definition and see only the detail, the trees and not the wood.  Arguably it's a fault that the play takes so much as read, but it is only arguable.  I think the most we can say from where we stand is that it hasn’t travelled well at all.
Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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