Would you rather be a happy pig or an unhappy human? Oblivious to the strife and suffering of the rest of humanity or painfully aware of it and therefore forced to contemplate the most difficult moral questions of our time?
Mike Bartlett’s new play – co-produced by Paines Plough and Watford Palace Theatre – explores this fundamental question with such humour and vibrancy that you barely realise you are being asked to take sides.
Bartlett’s ‘future history play’ King Charles III, one of the most exciting new plays of the year to date, is currently at the Almeida. This new piece, a two-hander, is set in a Britain still smarting from the conflict in Iraq; the government has chosen to intervene, despite public opposition, in the civil war of an unnamed foreign country. Probably shells will be fired, definitely troops will be deployed on the ground and potentially a mess will be created that we can neither solve nor easily walk away from. Sound familiar? So given the choice again, what would you do?
The conflict unfolding overseas is reflected in the friendship between performers Rachael Stirling and John Hollingworth, two characters never referred to by name and known only in the text as A and B, who can be played by actors of any age, gender or ethnicity. The more present dilemma for them is when is again one of intervention – when is it right to interpose in a friend’s personal conflict? A’s drinking is getting out of hand and B is clearly marrying the wrong woman but when is the right time to say so?
The production, by all accounts, has changed extensively in the previews ahead of opening night. Director James Grieve’s instinctive and assured attitude towards changing the staging at the last minute reflects Bartlett’s fluent and fast-paced style as a writer. The dialogue hurtles along at a furious pace, through tight turns and rapid-fire punchlines whilst expertly maintaining focus on the central relationship: the double act between A and B.
Rachael Stirling is in the driving seat and doesn’t take her foot of the pedal throughout – prodding, jabbing, sniping, snarking and overwhelming her opposite number with a mix of humour and humanity. John Hollingworth is the straight man to Stirling’s funny girl, stubbornly rejecting the passion she advocates for a life of contented ignorance.
Increasingly as the piece unfolds, the foreign warzone becomes too distant and abstract to support the central questions and the offstage characters reveal themselves as mere vehicles for the onstage action – the idea that B’s new wife won’t watch the war on TV but will watch Saw 4 whilst breast-feeding her newborn for instance is almost deliberately unbelievable. And occasionally the staging seems to gets stuck between the naturalistic drama unfolding between A and B and a kind of vaudevillian style direct address.
Engaged, entertaining and forthright, the energy of the the production is evident on stage and both performances are excellent. The starkness of the final image in which the reported war might be the only thing that can save the characters is particularly striking. An Intervention succeeds on two levels: is not only politically engaged but also fiercely uncompromising in its mission to entertain.
“My generation failed at protest.” The Exeunt Q&A with Mike Bartlett.