Tuesday 20 January 2009

Complicit - Old Vic

Yesterday, the Old Vic moved the press night of Complicit back by nine days amidst a flurry of speculation as to whether this was because Richard Dreyfuss couldn’t remember his lines; so this isn’t a “review”, per se, just a blog post from someone who happened to see the show last night.

Frankly, Mr Dreyfuss’s memory is the least of Complicit’s problems; he’s currently got a nice line-feed ear-piece to save him from drying and his performance proceeds unperturbed. No, Complicit’s big problem is Joe Sutton’s script; which is dreadful.

Benjamin Kritzer (Dreyfuss) is a fictional Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who, in the days following 9/11, wrote an op-ed piece suggesting that torturing al-Qaeda terrorists might not be such a bad idea. After this, he has an apparent change of heart and writes a book, or possibly an article, or maybe both – the script seems a little unclear on this point – which investigates the American programme of extraordinary rendition. During the course of researching the book a whistleblower inside the government gives him the official documents containing the actual orders for torturing particular suspects, the location of the torture and the names of those involved and those giving the commands.

The “action” of the play – or rather the point at which everyone shouts at each other for two hours – is set in the middle of an inquiry in which Kritzer is being leant on by a judge to reveal his source. The drama of the piece is nominally provided by Kritzer’s internal conflict as to whether or not he should cave in to these demands or face up to twenty years in prison on charges of espionage. This dilemma is explored through Kritzer’s conversations with his lawyer Roger Cowan (David Suchet) and his wife (Elizabeth McGovern).

Beyond this, for most of the first half, it seems pretty unclear what the book actually said and moreover, what was in the document that he was given. Indeed, it feels oddly as if Sutton had deployed that classic Ibsen “dark secret” structure, with everyone alluding obliquely to some event too terrible to name, leading toward a big pay-off. This is a bit of a mistake, though, since all the debates that Kritzer has with his lawyer and his wife pretty much depend on some understanding of what the hell he’s talking about, what’s at stake, and so on. It comes across like an odd and totally unnecessary conflation of Martin Amis’s “thought experiment” with the Andrew Gilligan “sexed-up dossier” inquiry.

Beyond the immediate journalistic integrity dilemma, Sutton is interested in examining America’s use of torture during the War on Terror. There’s some passable speechifying about how great America is, or was before it started torturing people, and then some stuff about how everyone is too self-interested and how protests against the Vietnam War stopped two years before the war did; just after the draft was abolished. They're West Wing off-cuts really, but they’ll do. The problem is, though, that Kritzer doesn’t seem at all sure of what he thinks about anything. And, for a journalist, he seems oddly under-informed and almost ingenuously na├»ve and trusting. Ultimately the focus of the play is not really America’s use of torture so much as Kritzer, Kritzer’s concern for his good name, and what Kritzer thinks about America’s use of torture. The dialog all seems to loop back to a tiresome “me, me, me” refrain, which, in the face of Geneva Convention violations and the world stage, looks more than a little egocentric. Moreover, because so very little is actually going on beyond discussion of the case, ethics and torture, the audience is given very little of Kritzer as a person, so we just have to take in on trust that we care about him. Suchet’s Cowan, the tough-talking Jewish lawyer, is actually a far more interesting character since he actually does things, makes decisions in the moment and, crucially, doesn’t just talk about himself. He talks about things, through which we get to learn about him as a character. It’s a pretty basic dramatic principle. Meanwhile, the more Kritzer talks about Kritzer, the less he seems to know, which is fine as a way of revealing something about his character, but somewhat irritating as the substance of a play.

For what it’s worth, Kevin Spacey’s production isn’t particularly bad – even if the play itself is excruciatingly boring. David Suchet is pretty good as Cowan, Dreyfuss isn’t quite as good as Suchet, but he has his moments – both good and bad – and sadly, Elizabeth McGovern isn’t really all that good at all. The set’s a bit of a curiosity; the stage is a large Perspex dish (the space is still in its excellent in-the-round configuration, which frankly, they should keep forever) cris-crossed with metal beams and underlit by a mass of big tellies during scene changes and pre-recorded video sections that intersperse the action in which Kritzer is interviewed by Andrew Marr – yes, they’ve got the real Andrew Marr. The net result is that it looks like an odd cross between a dartboard and The Weakest Link. I guess it looks quite nice, though, if a little showy.

What is interesting, however, is that despite Mr Dreyfuss’s line-learning issues evidently being an issue, reports from friends who saw much earlier previews suggest that they are a bit of a red-herring as far as the put back press-night goes. Dreyfuss is basically fine. Hell, if Recorded Delivery can do a show wired, there’s no reason he shouldn’t. the wire is barely noticeable and doesn’t appear to impede his performance one iota. No, in the programme there are two “Interrogators” credited. These now make only the briefest of appearances at the very close of the play, in a kind of nightmare coda that I’m afraid looks as if it has been lifted from an entirely different, and not-very-good student drama Guantanamo-protest piece. Apparently there were more of these before and, according to my source, they were utterly risible. Spacey might want to think about knocking out this final example before press night. It suddenly changes the entire register of the piece, but only lasts ten seconds or so. Moreover, it feels like a rather juvenile way of making sure everyone gets the message. Either that, or the production should have to courage of its convictions and deliver something genuinely shocking at the end. Not just an allusion, but something as difficult to watch, as the earlier descriptions of torture are to listen to.

It is possible that in the next eight days, Spacey and his obviously committed cast may turn this show around, but I’m not entirely sure, with the whole script in need of a serious overhaul, that there will be enough time. It’s possible that the play will find admirers, but on current showing, it’s a pretty forlorn hope.


robertwalport said...

Great blog. I agree on almost every point. I saw, and blogged about, the very first preview which did have several mock torture scenes and they were indeed cringe worthily awful (especially the last). They didn't even achieve the shock value that I suspect was intended. I made the exact same comment about Spacey improving the play before the opening but that two weeks ago and since clearly nothing has changed since, I don't think the next week is going to change much.


JohnnyFox said...

I anticipated and indeed recommend an early transfer to the Garrison Theatre, Guantanamo Bay where - now that Mr Obama has asked for the doors to be opened - the audience will probably walk out ...

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's a fine line between a good piece of drama and an outstanding piece. This doesn't really do it for me, although it has good components - good set, pretty good direction, some great acting, but a really dull play. It feels as if it's been written by a committee. In fairness it's all been done better before and coming after Obama's decision to shut Guantanamo, it suddenly feels dated in its context. I don't think the play really knows what it's about. It mixes up its themes quite a lot. I've never seen a line feed at the Old Vic in 35 + odd years going there. It's a pity and a distraction - didn't make it feel as if Drefuss was 100% in the part. I love Suchet - I think I last saw him there in '98 playing Salieri to Michael Sheen's Mozart and he was as usual electric.
I've got to be honest, I think Spacey still struggles to get it right. Norman Conquests a triumph and he may be getting bums on seats, with great names, but I don't think this is going to get good reviews

dhvinyl said...

Just returned from the pre-press night matinee. The earpiece is still in, and simply because of its publicity, takes away from teh drama. A 30 minute chunk has vanished - the programme has a running time of 2.15 while the actual time is 1.45 and the two interrogators are heard not at all, though someone pops in wirth a piece of paper at one point. David Suchet is superb; Dreyfuss is vastly better in the second act - just such a shame he can't live without the earpiece, its wire and the sellotape that doesn't quite hold it in place; and Elizabeth McGovern is OK, but unfeasibly young to be married to Dreyfuss.
That said, it did grab my attention. The story line isn't new, and, now confined to the "source betrayal" element, works well.
The programme however needs a major revamp now that we obviously have a quite different play to that on january 9

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, I blogged about the very first preview, too, and I wholeheartedly agree about the text.

Anonymous said...

Having now caught up with the Saturday matinee of the revised-opening week, I can finally offer my tuppennyworth:

Firstly, the interrogators have now gone entirely, so I'm unqualified to say anything about them. Secondly, Dreyfuss didn't appear to be taking any feeds from the earpiece, and what other writers have described as an erratic and mystifying performance may simply be that they don't know Dreyfuss that well: I saw nothing today that he hasn't been doing since, say, the movie of The Goodbye Girl.

Now to the main thing: it's not a dreadful play. It's not even a bad play. What it is, is a poor choice for the Old Vic or for anywhere in Britain. Because we will almost all watch it in terms of Kritzer and what he thinks and feels, whereas this is secondary. The "passable speechifying" is the point of the play. It's America, stoopid.

And the reason we see the speechifying as only passable is that it takes too much for granted to communicate with us. This isn't a debate, as it may seem to be, between the liberalism of Kritzer's book and the neoconservatism of his op-ed piece; it's not about those conflicts - it's about the more basic subversion of core American values... more, of American identity. This becomes much clearer in thesecond half, where there are several uses of the term "un-American". This isn't about loading the term in an ideological debate within the framework of the American polity; it's about the ethical and moral basis of that polity itself, and how it was subverted or simply trashed by the Bush government. And because (although we may share the policy values of one side or other) we don't share that deeply conditioned perspective about what it is here that defines our nation and us as citizens, it doesn't connect with us.

Does any of that make any sense? I'm worried that I haven't sufficiently explained it. 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 concept, we miss the basic definition and see only the detail, the trees and not the wood.

Now, arguably it's a fault that the play takes so much as read, but it is only arguable - after all, so to an extent do most of not all plays, from the sense of the polis underpinning Oedipus Tyrannos to the now-squalid implicit homophobia in The Mousetrap. This play just doesn't travel nearly as well as most.

..is what I think.