The humble Jermyn Street Theatre does have a knack for astute programming. After playing host to a rediscovery of 1978 feminist musical I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road earlier this summer, Anthony Biggs’ basement studio has opened its doors to Ealing’s Questors Theatre and their unexpected staging of two short David Greig plays.
John Davey directs a confident amateur production, but the real pleasure is in witnessing Greig’s masterful skewering of two weighty political issues. Kyoto (2009) brutally reduces the inept international approach to climate change, while 2012’s The Letter Of Last Resort forensically examines the morality of nuclear weapons. It’s just unfortunate that, in the few years since the plays were both written, the international community has taken decisive, affirmative action on tackling global warming and an enlightened British establishment has guided the country far down the path of disarmament. Oh, hang on”¦
Yep, Greig’s work remains as piercingly relevant as ever, but there is still something slightly strange about The Questors’ decision to stage these particular plays now. Topicality aside, there is little actual meat to either. The characters are little more than caricatured mouthpieces for opposing perspectives. There is also scant plot and the plays’ obvious political intent sits squarely in the way of any emotional engagement. These are superb technical exercises in realising heavy public discourse in private individuals, but they lack real dramatic depth; they’re good plays, not great ones.
Kyoto presents Dan (Simon Roberts) and Lucy (Jananne Rahman), two delegates at a climate change summit in an unspecified ex-Communist country. Turned on by tipsiness and the welcoming anonymity of a hotel bed, they are about to consummate an affair ten years in the making. But as their rambling conversation progresses, fundamental differences between them rise to the surface and it becomes clear that more than just the padlock on the minibar stands between them and the bedsheets.
Their fading hopes are an elegant – if overworked – metaphor for humanity’s rapidly dissipating chance of salvation from environmental disaster. They both wanted the same thing, ultimately, but it was their lack of cohesive planning that let them down. Sketched in though both characters are, Greig’s wit and chutzpah in straining the allegory beyond its limits have to be admired. Roberts and Rahman both put in competent performances as the would-be lovers, every inch the middle-aged dreamers clinging on to a vanishing spark of lust and love.
With The Letter Of Last Resort, Greig drops analogies altogether. A strident, straight-talking female Prime Minister (Lisa Day) has just taken office to be confronted by a pressing dilemma concerning Trident (Greig’s prescience is quite astonishing). ‘John’ (Robert Gordon Clark), a softly-spoken, immaculately manicured civil servant knocks on her door, requesting that she record her orders to the anonymous captain of a nuclear submarine in the event of a catastrophic atomic attack on Britain. Does she want him to retaliate, or not?
The ensuing conversation between Prime Minister and civil servant – a transparent homage to Yes Minister – guides the audience through the ethical quagmire of Trident with lucidity and wit. Greig toys with the philosophical concepts at play with compelling dexterity, piling contradiction upon contradiction until the essential paradox of nuclear deterrence is blindingly apparent. Again, his characters are little more than expositional tools – although Clark provides the evening’s best performance as the pristine, unflappable ‘John’ – but here it is less of a stumbling block as the play’s real subject is nakedly discussed throughout. Emphasis is entirely on content, not character.
Is topicality alone reason enough to decide when to stage a play? Shouldn’t programming choices offer something more than a perspective on the issues of the present? That probably depends on context for the most part, but this David Greig double bill is about as relevant as any theatre programming gets and although it is ably produced by The Questors Theatre, the paucity of feeling at the core of both plays means the evening, although indisputably absorbing, is also rather cerebral. It’s intellectually rich but emotionally dry.