First Night – National Theatre ( unusual to have a theatre review here but our worlmedia website is down for technical problems, so it is here temporarily )
Labelled by American newspapers (like the New York Times) A murder mystery, “Evening at the Talk House” by American actor and playwright Wallace Shawn ( world premier opened at the National Theatre Dorfman Theatre Tuesday 24 November ) wasn’t certainly seen this way by our reviewer. This very well produced (not all the acting on same level as the sympathetic tight production by director Ian Rickson) is a mixture of streams running into wider emotional valley. A subtle political statement on how far things can go when futuristic society self-righteous authorities can take individuals out for the general good; ruining parallel some human psychology on how individual behaviour can vibrate from speaking one’s inner thoughts, to that in two-hander conversation, to a discussion argument in a group, as well as how much our present scares us that the raft we cling into would be our memories of a safer past.
A reunion at what presented as a legendary club of nostalgia, The Talk House, which had seen better days – but still has some class and the beautiful set-design by the Quay Brothers with great window and high ceilings suggesting a Pall Mall London club. Weather owned or managed by the kindly Nellie (Anna Calder-Marshall), there’s the same genteel atmosphere, the familiar drinks and the Nellie trademark snacks. Lights flickering indicating below standard building maintenance and continuous decay. The nostalgic congregation made of Robert The playwright (Josh Hamilton) , Ted the composer, Jane the once in the past actress, come waitress come hit-woman (confesses to eliminating individuals on orders in Nigeria, Indonesia and at home) and Dick the former television and stage star beaten by time, events, betrayal and physically beaten up the night before.
A possibility of a pleasant night to watch? Far from it.
We don’t want to give away the plot and the twist in the end , but surprisingly, Evening At the Talk House’s Author Mr Shawn who plays the defeated beaten former Star Dick speaks the least number of lines, but when he does they are powerful soul churning making him is a point of reference (in Shakespearean sense) to measure how far the immorality of others have reached while the only two morally acceptable characters, Nellie isn’t part of the balance changing argument and Bill losses it as soon as he starts it.
Both Shawn and Rickson, with the help of lighting designer Neil Austin use some theatrical and dramatic devices, non is new but the combination helps aligns mind, visual, emotions and audience own experiences to produce a continuous thought process that stays with you hours after you leave the theatre.
I must confess that when Robert (Hamilton) the playwright starts the play with a long introduction on stage with auditorium still lit I murmured “oh god plays about playwrights are usually tediously boring,” but that was the first device. Not as much as a Brechtian storyteller aiming to distance you from the action, but more like Arthur Miller’s 1955 play A view from the Bridge narrator Alfieri the American Italian lawyer who puts traditional Sicilian tribal justice ahead of American law. Like Miller’s Alfieri Shawn’s Robert goes into the action as a main character, sensitive and gives a clue of the society in intellectual decline “nobody goes to Theatre anymore” when popular television shows are the arena of national drama and entertainment even worldwide. The the bloodier the reality Tv – the human zoo- the better. Unlike Miller’s Alfieri who goes in and out of the play’s scenes to continue the narration, Shawn’s Robert stays in the drama to the end. It is up to the audience to discover how much of a villain he is. This is perhaps the play’s weakest point: Some characters like Robert don’t develop as the play goes on, but it is our feelings towards them that develop. However Rikson and Austin use another brilliant device to shore up the two characters Robert and the actress came maid-assassin Jane (Sinead Matthews—great performance with script and director putting very difficult physical demands on her gentle body carrying trays and moving all the time) . The climax of how we discover the disturbing facts come in two-hander scene between Robert and Jane and their past which he wants to relive “ do you remember our sexual games?”, while she wants to forget “ no….I was only a child.” Rikson moves them down stage left. Robert stands behind her with distance about 4-5 feet while their shadows are much closer almost touching when reflected from the projectors-light on a screen. It is a visual statement (although the plot and words make the same point) that the past was much safer, cosier and humane than the present. However a whole side of the house (three sided auditorium ) would have missed this visual device.
They play, although have some light moments and good lines (still American playwrights are way behind their British counterpart when it comes to subtle comedy, puns and good quips) isn’t a light entertainment but good intellectual drama.
It raises disturbing moral, social and political questions especially in current climate when there are decisions to be made about target assassination of “potential” enemies abroad that might threaten us at home based on non-conclusive evidence that certainly won’t stand in court in our legal system but on box ticking of who might be hostile and who isn’t . Four characters are American and four are British. It is Anglo-American alliance facing outside danger and internal one and still struggling with moral justification.
The issues raised by the play will be subject to a special discussion session of 30 minutes after Friday 27 November show.
The play is one hour 36 minutes no interval; seats are ok, but not as comfortable as a westend theatres. There is a good bar but not much food, if you want to eat you are advised to get something at the main building (20 yards round the corner), there is a cloak room for coats and bags but a long queue to retract them after the play.
AppFabNews.com verdict **** for stars out of five.