Performed at last year’s Fringe Festival, Kevin Toolis’ production returns to the Traverse to see if its satire still flies.
Toolis’ play takes the form of an extended put-down of almost everything and everyone in Gordon Brown’s life—especially Brown himself. Billy Hartman’s performance as Brown is confusing though. Pacing between the three pieces of set (a desk, a mirror, and a window) Hartman seems to struggle sometimes to remember his place in the continuous stream of jargon which constitutes ninety-five percent of the play. The action switches repeatedly between tiresome impressions of Brown performing his speeches and attempts at revealing the former Prime Minister’s personal feelings; this back and forth quickly became tedious.
The action plays out beneath an unmoving clock, which forever reads five-forty in the evening, as the character awaits a six o’clock meeting. Perhaps the fact that the play is predicated on the arrival of other political figures is intended to be powerful, but it just feels unnecessarily repetitive and Brown’s desperate anticipation soon becomes uncomfortably mirrored by that of an audience equally desperate for some kind of narrative development within the play.
The lighting felt sometimes erratic, sometimes predictable. A spotlight frames Hartman as he performs his speeches, his mark highlighted by large strips of masking tape on an unexplored stage. Warm lighting shines through the window during the moments where the play tries to convey a more sensitive side of Brown. This obvious choice feels cynical in its attempt to engage the audience’s emotions—cynical because it underestimates people’s ability to spot the same note being struck over and over for the same intended effect. When Tony Blair is mentioned as being “in the light”, an empty chair was instantly illuminated by a single spotlight, a choice so blunt that it felt ridiculous.
Advertised as political satire, the humour of the performance creates frequent awkward silences. Muddling political puns with ill-considered racial remarks, the writing feels geared towards exposing only the most unpalatable elements of the former Prime Minister. This fundamental unwillingness to engage with the humanity of its subject was central to the play—another reason why the appeals to our emotions felt dishonest.
If the play really thought of Gordon Brown as inhuman, it should have made that case. The world of politics encompasses the sort of human fallibility which theatre has been exploring since Aeschylus. Gordon Brown could just as easily be an Orestes; or a Don Quixote. But in The Confessions of Gordon Brown, he’s a hollow shell.