Set in a fictitious Middle Eastern state, Howard Korder’s In A Garden wields some mighty – and mightily relevant – themes in its time-delay exploration of the slippery relationship between Fawaz Othman, the state’s Minister of Culture, and Hackett, an ambitious American architect, over the course of fifteen turbulent years.
For much of the 1990s-spanning first half, Korder focuses on the ever-shifting dynamics of these two men’s negotiations over the design of a summerhouse for the ministry gardens. Is Othman Hackett’s client or his patron? Is it a summerhouse or a gazebo? Why do the negotiations go on for so long? And, perhaps more pertinently, why is Hackett happy to travel halfway across the world, year after year, to discuss what is, in effect, a fairly minor commission?
These questions hang in the air over a deliciously written hour of to-and-fro game-playing and brinkmanship, with Othman prone to seductively gnomic, often poetic utterances and the frustrated Hackett never fully able to give up on what he sees as a chance to catapult himself into architecture’s premier league. At the same time the dialogue skates across surfaces which conceal a series of ever-more complex off-stage situations – Othman’s relationship with the country’s leader, Najid, and Hackett’s evidently disintegrating home life in particular.
In the second half, this winning obliquity is at least partially sacrificed as the play ups the political ante and – as if we hadn’t already guessed from the huge portrait of a moustachio’d, Hussein-like dictator looming over the set – the parallels with Iraq become increasingly obvious and specific. A play of character turns into a play of ideas, and although the writing remains just as sharp and bitterly funny (most noticeably during Hackett’s first presidential audience), it’s as if Korder is jamming in far more than he’s got space to explore – or loses confidence in letting his two finely drawn main characters speak for themselves. That’s not to say that the second half is necessarily weaker than the first, but there’s a noticeable change in style and tone when Najid himself appears – and again when, in 2004, the inevitable happens and Hackett encounters one of his own countryman on the territory he’s grown to consider his turf.
If the play itself has a ‘game of two halves’ feel about it, Richard Beecham’s production – the second in the Ustinov Studio’s American season – is exemplary in its attention to subtle shifts in knowledge, atmosphere and power. As Hackett, Keir Charles – the bumptious Davis from the season’s erratic opener, Red Light Winter – channels a frat boy confidence whose brittle naivety and self-interest leaves him out of his depth and gasping into his mobile, while, as his patron/client/nemesis Othman, Hassani Shapi is a compelling combination of oleaginous flattery, self-confident strut and dilettante enthusiasms before he starts to disintegrate in front of our eyes. Chris Andrew Mellon’s Najid, too, is no by-the-yard dictator – for some reason, his studied political showmanship suggests a bizarre hybrid of Idi Amin and Bruce Forsyth – and, in a rather functional last-scene role, Mark Heenehan injects Prudhomme with as much humanity as anyone could muster in the circumstances.
As a reflection on the relationship between the West and the Middle East, In A Garden creates a series of powerful and suggestive metaphors through the circling, embattled interactions between Othman and Hackett, and if points are rather too strongly made towards the end, it nevertheless remains a solid and thought-provoking piece of work.