Two days after becoming the most talked about man in America, Lee Harvey Oswald was shot on live television, dying in the same hospital as JFK. Two years after the event, Michael Hastings, using the testimonies of Oswald’s mother and Russian wife, tried to unearth his story, a difficult endeavour, and though the resulting play presents a full examination of Oswald’s life after his return to the US from Russia, it does little to challenge our ideas of the man.
Hastings’ play – being performed for the first time in London for 40 years – situates itself in the office of the Commissioner during his interviews with the women closest to Oswald, and as their stories unfold, they are realized on stage. Despite drawing on familial sources, the picture we gain of Oswald is one of an angry man, prone to egotism, who uses violence to escape his alienation. His mother and wife both struggle to understand him, whether it be his love of guns, or his obsession with American history; they fail to empathize, and so do we.
Alex Thorpe’s production attempts to remedy this, working outside of the existing script to provide tender moments between the newly-weds; while Lee’s mother talks to the Commissioner, Lee and Marina remain on stage, play-fighting while he teaches her English. There are some bold directorial decisions in these split-scene moments, with Gemma Lawrence, wonderfully conveying an isolated young woman, ten thousand miles away from home, as she sits on stage and applies make-up to suggest a beating. This moment serves to remind us that these testimonies are subjective, and we must continue to question their truth.
In these intimate moments between the couple, we see more humanity in Lee, however, this is undermined whenever he speaks. Though Adam Gillen achieves a thorough realization of this difficult figure, he never quite becomes sympathetic. He doesn’t speak, he shouts, and though this is clearly scripted, as Marina’s constant refrain of “stop shouting” shows, it’s still quite blunt; the man we are left with seems to have only one register. Even when Lee provides an interesting critique of American consumerism, this is lost because of the lack of subtlety in the delivery.
In fact watching the production as a whole is an uncomfortable experience. Tom Cooper’s lighting design sees spotlights shining horizontally across the stage, half-blinding the audience. At times, this works perfectly, when we are thrown under the intimidating eyes of the Commissioner, however, mostly this discomfort is not earned. This can also be said of other moments, when chairs are thrown, or there are long scenes of shouting; the play lacks tension as it is, and the production does not help itself by making it harder to watch.
Hastings’ play suggests it will reexamine Oswald’s “guilty” sentence, yet it condemns him. A more subtle approach might have helped but ultimately what we are presented with is a portrait an angry young man, who acts brutally towards his incredibly forgiving wife and caring mother.