Thursday, January 31, 2008

The President's Holiday by Penny Gold, Hampstead Theatre, 24-Jan-2008 – Directed by Patrick Sanford

A few years ago a teenage colleague at work assured me that the socialist revolution was just around the corner. Whatever the merits of such a revolution, I'm not sure that any it is any closer now than it was then. It does appear, however, that he's not the only person who thinks like this. Penny Gold's author's note at the beginning of the play text as well as her hopeful message at the end of the play seem to indicate that she'd like to see a return to some kind of proper socialism if not a full blown revolution.
Watching this play I kept feeling that there's a lot that could be included in the story of Gorbachev's three day detention during the Soviet Union’s 1991 August coup. I kept reminding myself of other verbatim work like Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest which dealt with the Romanian revolution that somehow ended up with similar people in charge. I would have liked to see a lot more of Gorbachev’s life story and motivations as well as getting a better picture (if only second hand) of some of the characters involved in the coup. The trouble in this play, where I saw good actors struggle unsuccessfully to bring life to the text, Penny Gold seems to have gone for what she sees as accuracy. Other than some clumsy parallels with the Tsar Nicolas the Second’s execution, which may not have been understood by people that hadn’t read the play, it appeared that Ms Gold was sticking too closely to a single source. The play is apparently based on the diaries of the late Raisa Gorbacheva and the writer appears unwilling to depart from the facts contained in it.
The play has the feel of documentary without editing tricks or dramatisation and at the same time without imagination. It seems too literal and the dialogue feels almost diagrammatic; people tell one another how they feel rather than allowing it to be expressed in what they say. Sometimes it was as if reported summarised speech had been turned straight into direct speech simply by enclosing it is quotes or rather putting a character’s name and a colon in front of it.
I wonder if the writer would claim that she was trying to tell the unvarnished truth but what comes across is clunky dialogue and the feeling that she didn’t dare to use any imaginative licence. I would be fascinated to find out how this play went wrong and how it was allowed to go so wrong. It’s not difficult to see the potential in this story: One of the world’s most powerful men is cut-off from the world for three days and finds that his power has entirely vanished. But you have to see his power (whether power as a person or power as a head of state) in order to understand its loss and you have to understand the character of all those that betrayed him in order to feel the betrayal.
I was going to do a joke about the Hampstead Theatre looking for a new Literary Manager but it doesn’t feel funny at the moment.

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