There’s danger in writing a play that directly reflects the now. It can look like a cynical land grab of the zeitgeist. Something a bit too easy, a bums-on-seats play for today that’s sure to garner plenty of media attention. It can generate dialogue that feels far too on-the-nose or worse, re-heat conversations that most of us have already grown weary of. But Schenkkan meets that danger head-on with a tightly-wound thriller that neatly pulls the rug on all these possible accusations.
The setting is a brightly lit glass box, a prison room in Texas, 2019. Gloria (Angela Griffin) is the historian, here to interview Nick (Trevor White), a man on Death Row.
Their conversation is recorded on Gloria’s dictaphone and piped through speakers. Gloria’s driven far. She admits to a brief dream that there’s a book deal in this but ultimately she’s here to help Nick tell his story. This is not the now of 2018 but an imagined future in which Trump’s America has taken another right turn. It’s a future in which lies and complicity are just the tip of the iceberg.
The interview format can be a dry affair. Not here. Director Jez Bond keeps the dialogue on the move, forcing his performers to play every nuance of the back-and- forth as the details are gradually revealed. There are no hiding places. Even the piped-through voices capture every detail: far from distancing, they bring the shifts of each character into sharp focus. The whole thing feels like a specimen under glass, still live. Kudos to designers Sarah Beaton and Sally Ferguson, who not only create this feel of squirming reality, but also ensure the reflections of Gloria and Nick appear like ghosts in the audience. And kudos to Theo Holloway for the piping, the offstage menace and the startling moments of shouting silence.
Sealed in this room, Griffin and White are utterly convincing. They have to be. Their accents and physicality are pin-sharp. There isn’t a single dropped moment. Everything is meaningful. Even the sharing of a tangerine is electric. Truly.
Schenkkan, Tony winner and Oscar nominee, knows exactly how to pace his beats and drip-feed the details of the events that brought us to this interview. However, this is more than a play of plot revelations: a clever drip-feed of ‘what’. This is also a play about the ‘why’. Why is the interview taking place? Why Gloria? Why is a self confessed Trump supporter pacing the room in an orange jumpsuit? Is this happening in a world where normality has returned, with Gloria recording from a position of relative safety? The answers are surprisingly elastic: over the course of 80 minutes they switch until finally, when we know the crime, we meet the final rug pull.
In a show of many great moments, two shine most in my memory. The first is Gloria’s early offering to Nick, a story to show how it feels to be black in America, to give him reason to share. It’s a small story but it chills the blood and lingers, underlining all that comes after. The second is the play’s final words, as Nick recounts a dream in which he realises what the wall really is. And we can finally realise why this interview has been allowed to happen.
This is a smart, sharp and thrilling play, executed in perfect detail. It’s gripping, surprising, provocative. While it might not change our minds, it does shed a light on how history repeats. And could well repeat again. As each character suggests, attention must be paid.
Cast: Angela Griffin, Trevor White Director: Jez Bond Writer: Robert Schenkkan Theatre: Park Theatre Duration: 80 mins Performance dates: 2nd May – 2nd June 2018