Monday, May 14, 2007

Death Row Drama

Ah, that’s more like it. After a run of duds and disappointments, I was beginning to wonder whether I was becoming unduly cynical and difficult to please. After all there were so many good reviews in the press for the overblown A Matter Of Life And Death, I was starting to think that the fault was mine, that something in me had, you know, soured.

Thankfully I saw something this weekend to lift me clear of my black little pit: Terre Haute by Edmund White was an engaging and thought provoking piece of theatre, a concise yet powerful play.

White has been inspired by the idea that, during his last days on death row, Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh entered into a correspondence with the essayist Gore Vidal. White uses this as a springboard to “imagine” a scenario where an elderly writer, much like Vidal, visits a young man in prison, who much like McVeigh, has been convicted for the mass murder of 168 people.

These characters are called James and Harrison to differentiate them from their real-life counterparts, but James is played (superbly) by actor Peter Eyre in a way that makes it difficult not to think about Vidal as you watch. Despite this White manages to successfully steer through the reality/fiction issue and produce a play that is easy to appreciate on its own terms.

The character of Harrison is articulate, intelligent and utterly without remorse - far more than the red-neck, survivalist stereotype he could have been. He’s played deftly by Arthur Darvill – in fact, both his and Eyre’s performances are first class. White draws some interesting parallels between the men – both are having to deal with their own mortality, as a result of old age, for one, and imminent execution for the other.

The play does not shy away from the reality of Harrison’s crime either, and the scene where James is no longer able to maintain his studied detached demeanour and screams at Harrison about the sacredness of human life, trying to illicit some reaction, some regret, is particularly powerful.

So, in short, strong but compelling stuff, though I rather wish White didn’t cloud things by adding a narrative strand about the bisexual James’ attraction to the younger man. I agree with theatre blogger John Morrison's view that White seems a little more interested in the Vidal character than that of the prisoner, something White more or less concedes in an article in the Guardian, saying that in the process of writing the play, the character came to reflect his own fears, anxieties and "confused amorous-paternal feelings towards a younger man in trouble."

That’s a small criticism though, Terre Haute is an excellent production, and at less than 80 minutes, one that hits you hard and leaves you hungry for more, rather than checking your watch and fidgeting in your seat (a quality in short supply of late). It’s playing at the smaller of the two Trafalgar Studios until June 2nd and is well worth seeing.


Andrew (a West End Whinger) said...

It's quite spooky how our tastes seem to be in tune with each other's.

It was a great evening, wasn't it? Great performances, good writing, thought provoking and quite short.

jason b said...

I'm with you guys - a very rewarding and intelligent piece of theatre.