Reviews National Published 26 May 2020

Review: The Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings show

A tragedy in two acts: Natasha Tripney assesses the theatrical merits of the government’s most recent instalments of live-streamed satire

Natasha Tripney

With most theatres set to remain closed until later in the year and the industry still waiting for any concrete offers of support, the government has been experimenting with live streamed, single-camera satire. The results have thus far been mixed; that is, until Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings decided to mark the bank holiday weekend with a dramaturgically adventurous duo of performances.

Boris Johnson, looking increasingly like a haunted thatched cottage, tackled his role script-in-hand, after confirming that he would perform late in the day (on several previous occasions understudies have been obliged to step in; Martine McCutcheon jokes have been made in the dressing room). This faint sense of unpreparedness was an intriguing choice, given that this was a pivotal point in the narrative.

His pacing also seemed somewhat erratic. Having rapidly exhausted his repertoire of tics, albeit in more muted form, he delivered the broadcast’s most stinging line mere minutes in. Cummings, he declared, had acted “responsibly, legally and with integrity.” It’s something of a bold move to evoke Orwell so explicitly from the outset, but it at least it effectively established the rules of this universe and the role that truth plays within it.

The Shakespearean allusions remain a large part of the appeal of these broadcasts (despite the fact that Johnson often displays a clear disregard for text) and while last night’s performance lacked the St Crispin’s day energy of earlier broadcasts, it owed a clear debt to Richard II, with dashes of Marlowe and Macbeth thrown in for good measure. In Johnson, we have a protagonist who learned early that being fired for lying would be no impediment to future employment. A man who displays a peculiarly English form of ambition, one void of principles and instead driven by the idea that he is in some way anointed, immune to the rough, rude sea. A man who, presumably as a consequence of some past necromantic pact, brought a plague upon his house within weeks of getting his hands on the power he had long hungered for.

Johnson’s transformation from durational self-caricature to someone who has glimpsed a ghost at a feast is now complete. The narrative twist, when it came, was sadly all too credible. There was no feigned empathy or fudged apology. Instead, Johnson doubled down, reiterating his commitment to defending one of his own men, even if it meant torpedoing his own public health guidance in the process. At the same time, he even appeared to suggest to the audience that, if they could not sympathise with Cummings’ actions and could not apprehend how reasonable they were, then perhaps their own humanity was at fault. The blatancy of this was impressive. Like Coriolanus, he resolved to “play the man I am” though his motivations for doing so more closely resembled desperation and self-protection than anything that could be described as honour.

The second act was more formally creative, with Johnson’s performance devolving into a collage of set phrases and hand gestures. Coherence and clarity were jettisoned in favour of bouts of intense paper shuffling and furious crossing out of notes, multiple utterances of the phrase “sensible and defensible.” His constant exhortations to “push down” were  accompanied with a gesture intended to convey exactly how one might push something down, while his pronouncements about “stopping the spread” were delivered in the manner of someone who once read a book on neurolinguistic programming and sat up one night watching old episodes of Derren Brown on YouTube. His repeated, near-Beckettian interjections of “I understand” were consistently undermined by his own eyes.

While much of this was underwhelming from a choreographic point of view, it featured some telling moments of character development, not least that revealing little half-smile as Johnson apprehended that a journalist had inadvertently engaged in an act of self-silencing (a particularly sinister bit of foreshadowing for those familiar with Hungarian theatre).

Perhaps the most audacious aspect of the whole performance, however, was what it chose to withhold. It offered people no reassurances, no explanation, no consolation, and no hope.

It asked its audience to pardon a man for doing what he felt was best for his family, at a time when the populace had been asked to do the exact opposite, often at great personal cost. It did this during a period of national fragility, when people have been prevented from visiting their own parents, from meeting new-born grandchildren, from mourning together, even from being at the bedside of dying relatives, all for the public good.  A time when the phrase ‘online funeral’ has entered the lexicon. The sense of cynicism, contempt and disregard was palpable; it was as bleak as it was brazen.

Photo: Press Association via AP Images

This set the scene for the following day’s companion piece, a late addition to the season, in which Cummings himself performed his own open-air one-man show.

The opening twenty minutes of silence was a bold choice, risking – and arguably succeeding – in further alienating the audience, but it did at least increase the sense of tension.  The presence of a trestle table, jug of water and microphone hinted at the possibility of an hour of Chris Brett Bailey-style broken poetry and aural assault. Instead we were treated to an exercise in anti-theatre.

Despite reading from notes, Cummings – looking a little like one of the aliens from Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! in his freshly pressed shirt – gave a convincing portrayal of a man who had no intention of offering an apology nor admitting his actions were anything other than reasonable while, in an echo of Johnson’s performance, implying that those unable to grasp this were at fault.

Delivered in a halting monotone, the plot did not so much thicken as congeal (the piece would definitely have benefited from some dramaturgical intervention) but it did at least hark back to his earlier performance as the man who helped save Michael Gove’s skin after the expenses scandal.

The script, presumably self-penned, was heavy on detail but light on plausibility – it never matched the dramatic momentum of James Graham’s prequel. When it reached the section about his eyesight, it became clear that what we were watching here was actually more of a meta-essay on the nature of storytelling itself. It frequently defied logic, lacked a satisfying narrative arc, and denied its audience any sense of closure. In fact, it was less a story than an act of moral gymnastics from a man who feels that rules exist to be circumnavigated. Only a dullard would follow them to the letter. There was no sense of regret or repentance, and no acknowledgement that in placing the needs of his family first, he was doing exactly what he asked people to refrain from doing for the sake of the common good. There were a few bitter laughs to be had, but only once you resigned yourself to the fact that the joke was on us.

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

Review: The Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings show Show Info


Directed by Dominic Cummings

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