John Wilkes Booth, the 19th century actor, had reasons for killing Abraham Lincoln. Delivered with the jollity of a marching song in Assassins, these might be dismissed as madness. But the sudden arrival of slow tender notes ushers in something cogent – the dream of ending a civil war.
Giving voice to individuals who took up arms against U.S. presidents is risky, but Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s daring musical insists they have a place in the American story. The Gate Theatre’s industrious new production, directed by Selina Cartmell, explores their legacy with dark hues.
Here, historical criminals are made flesh and speak some of the nation’s woes. There’s no denying the political resistance of John Wilkes Booth (self-possessed Matthew Seadon-Young), or the pursuit of anarchist Leon Czolgosz (determined Sam McGovern) for workers’ rights. Manson Family member Lynette Fromme (Kate Gilmore, coolheaded and affecting) and hijacker Samuel Byck (a nicely irritated Dan Gordon) tell sad stories of abandonment. It’s easy to see how personal suffering yearns for something meaningful, such as altering a country’s trajectory.
In a musical with its own shoulder devil (a gun-selling Proprietor, played by Nicholas Pound) and angel (Gerard Kelly’s Balladeer, singing opportunism), characters are regularly cautioned and persuaded. Eventually, the moans of song “Another National Anthem” confirm their commitment to assassinate the President. The admirable concern of Sondheim and Weidman’s work is to understand how that road was taken.
This vision isn’t easy to pull off. It’s difficult to imagine how the likes of immigrant Gieuseppe Zangara (Brian Galligan) and former FBI informant Sara Jane Moore (Aoibheann McCann), given committed performances here, can become anything more than caricatures. If transforming ill-remembered assassins into something less exaggerated is the task at hand, then the design pulls focus. Sarah Bacon’s fairground set, framed by a shooting gallery and backed by the ghastly face of a clown, has the intensity of a horror film.
With such extreme displays it’s hard to take the production seriously, even as it moves solemnly towards a suicidal Lee Harvey Oswald (and a fine performance by Gerard Kelly). In a rare moment of consequence, we’re reminded of a desperate need for significance. “People will hate me,” says Oswald. “People will hate you with a passion. Imagine people having passionate feelings about Lee Harvey Oswald,” replies Booth.
More often than not, such poignancy is lost in the production’s overstated approach, as if it were too cartoonish to take proper aim.
Assassins is on until 9 June 2018 at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Click here for more details.