PLAY COMPLICIT VENUE THE OLD VIC, THE CUT

Joe Sutton’s ‘Complicit’
The Old Vic Theatre, London
7 Jan. - 21 Feb. 2009

Complicit, the latest stage production for the Old Vic starring the wonderful Richard Dreyfuss and directed by Kevin Spacey, concerns a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who fights a repressive governmental crackdown on critical news journalism. Benjamin Kritzer (Richard Dreyfuss), who once argued for the world to get a lot tougher on terrorism, realises the fallacy of this approach when his government violates the Geneva Convention by torturing al-Qaeda terrorist suspects. Assisted by a whistleblower from inside the government Kritzer produces an incriminating article damning the administration for its brutality. The government responds by redacting his article and formally charging him with espionage, a move which is designed to reveal the identity of the whistleblower. The play concerns three characters: Kritzer, his wife Judith (Elizabeth McGovern), who represents the intimacy as well as the claustrophobia and frustrations of traditional family life in upper-middle class America, and Cowan (David Suchet), the not-quite human lawyer with a fuckeveryone mentality who pretends to defend his client with dignity, compassion and sincerity. Kritzer, caught between the two at a sort of ground zero, punishes himself in trying to do the honourable thing and flirts with the idea of martyrdom.

The play garnered awful reviews: see Michael Billington’s Complicit (The Guardian, 29 January 2009), Charles Spencer’s Complicit at the Old Vic Review: A Play About Torture? It certainly Was (The Telegraph, 29 January 2009) and David Benedict’s Complicit (Variety, 29 January 2009). In addition, a string of pernicious stories before the run tended to scapegoat its lead actor. According to The Guardian the play was delayed a week for “more development time”; director Kevin Spacey drew criticism for using rehearsal to debate politics with his actors; and rumours that Richard Dreyfuss could not master his lines filtered into the press when, in its first week, the actor appeared onstage using a hearing aid prompt. Few could forgive Dreyfuss on the latter point, rightly stating that actors should find something in the text that helps them to commit lines to memory, however, in the performance I attended on Tuesday evening I felt the actor was absolutely splendid.

In 2008, the auditorium was converted into an in-the-round space for a larger capacity crowd of 850. An in-the-round stage offers a variation of the classical Proscenium in which an audience sits on one side of the stage; in-the-round relocates the stage to the centre of the auditorium producing a different effect for the audience. In his rather self-satisfied Notes on the Construction of the CQS Space (28 September, 2008) architect Andrew Todd claims that this gives rise to a new form of representation — the exploration of thought through performance and delivery. In-the-round productions no longer require, and few actually contain, scaled sets, props and design — the production becomes, therefore, something quite different to the classical norm, a more focused endeavor that requires its actors and audience to see and create the world: to an extent, we control the world. The system is more demanding but also problematic. Actors use dialogue to show action, to interpret action, but as spectators we are often more inclined to want to see the actor perform. The in-the-round system satisfies this desire by bringing the viewer closer to the stage, yet it requires of the production a different presentation style, one that is more dialogue-based, more thought-based, and less dependent on imagery, sets or scale. But, significantly, this tension between a particularly thought-based presentation style and the traditional pleasures and expectations of a theatre audience is heightened when star performers are involved. The desire to watch star performers perform becomes more intense (particularly if this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for audience members): no longer defined, therefore, by dialogue, delivery and thought necessarily, but by performance and gesture, the production moves (a compromise) from thought back to image.

Significantly, this tension between a particularly thought-based presentation style and the traditional pleasures and expectations of a theatre audience is heightened when star performers are involved. The desire to watch star performers perform becomes more intense: no longer defined, therefore, by dialogue, delivery and thought necessarily, but by performance and gesture, the production moves (a compromise) from thought back to image
In Complicit this created a bit of a mess. Actors regularly delivered speeches with their backs turned to large sections of audience, and in an attempt to correct this Dreyfuss and Suchet repeated some of their lines (and in one melodramatic sequence key emotional beats) for those of us who could not see the performance seconds earlier. In this sense, the actors were working to accommodate two audiences. Secondly, a system of opulent video screens suspended over the stage brought the production back from thought to image. Television inserts, which showed Dreyfuss in interview with Andrew Marr, a dour political commentator for the BBC, focused our attention back on to the camera and to the importance of the close-up.

Though it sounded tantalising, Joe Sutton’s play was indeed concerned less with action than reaction and, ultimately, the narrative devolved into a debate on survival strategies and legal wrangling. The story conjures the familiar image of an American government sadistically devouring itself amid the ongoing maddeningly indefinable War on Terror, but the melodrama was largely insubstantial, rarely moving us to feel anything for the desiring, vulnerable, ambitious characters. Sutton is not a dramatist of the calibre of, say, Peter Morgan, nor is Complicit anywhere near as sophisticated or cutting a legal tale as Tony Gilroy’s excellent Michael Clayton, and because of this, distracting stories about production woes and actual postponements worked their way into the play’s architecture. And since it was absolutely flimsy at best — as a concept, as a character study, or a tense drama in an antechamber — Complicit just did not hold up under that level of scrutiny.

5 February, 2009

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