The Donmar reopens under Sam Mendes' helmsmanship with his first production of a musical, the British première of Sondheim's studio piece. A bizarre twilight-zone carnival shooting-gallery is frequented by nine presidential murderers and would-be murderers from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, Jr. The show's thesis is that all these people were trying to fulfil their own American Dreams, from striking a blow for the Confederacy (Booth against Lincoln in 1865) or anarchism (Leon Czolgosz – William McKinley, 1901) to just being noticed (Sam Byck – Nixon, 1974; Sara Jane Moore – Gerald Ford, the following year); "Where's my prize?" rings out a pivotal refrain from the booths of the gallery.
Sondheim is as simply eloquent as ever, and subverting conventions all the way – the main romantic number "Unworthy Of Your Love" is a duet between "Squeaky" Fromme (also Ford, 1975) and Hinckley (Reagan, 1981) to pictures of their respective idols, Charlie Manson and Jodie Foster; Weidman, too, gets in a metatextual jab, as Byck (an unrecognisable Ciaran Hinds) records a rambling tape to Leonard Bernstein including snatches from "Tonight" and "America", whose lyrics were of course written by Sondheim. The show's specific Americanness never feels alien; no background knowledge is assumed – the feelings are universal. Things grow fuzzy only with a climactic episode in which all eight others try to persuade Lee Harvey Oswald that by shooting JFK he will somehow reinvest the rest of them with meaning as well.
Mendes' compulsive precision (which, for this reviewer, sometimes hamstrings his direction of plays) works on Assassins to spectacular effect, keeping the multiple actions and themes of most of the numbers spinning simultaneously without crashing into each other. Among an individually and collectively remarkable cast, Henry Goodman stands out as the amiably maniacal Charles Guiteau, a failed evangelist and author who shot James Garfield in 1881 because he wasn't made Ambassador to France, and Louise Gold in a gem of a minor part as the chronically chaotic Sara Jane Moore. As Americans affirm (please God) that presidents can still be removed through the prescribed channels, this is a coruscating reminder of the outer limits of their Dream. You may balk at paying such prices for a studio show; some studio – some show.
Written for City Limits magazine.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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