Mike Bartlett’s new play runs for 95 minutes, about the same length as the average football match. The analogy is relevant because of the number of times that we are advised that, if we leave/switch off a match before the final whistle, we are sure to miss the vital goal(s). After three scenes and with little time left, the play seems to be going round in circles. We are looking at our watches and then, out of the blue [reveal at peril]. In the early exchanges, it feels as if Bartlett has been seeing too much David Mamet, filling the play with smart, snappy dialogue while draining it of heart, drama and purpose. However, it emerges that he is playing a game of four quarters.
The setting is a bland Moscow hotel room to which 28-year-old American Andrew (Jack Farthing), a skinny, bespectacled geek, has fled, having blown the whistle on US state secrets. He is met firstly by a woman (Caoilfhionn Dunne) and then a man (John Mackay) each calling themselves”George” and making contradictory claims to be offering help on behalf of their leader, who cannot be there in person because he is trapped in a London embassy (who could that possibly be?). Surely, we think, a writer of Bartlett’s class must have loftier aims than to simply recycle the Edward Snowden debate as fodder for the Guardian-reading chatterers of Hampstead. And he has. There are only passing references to the rights and wrongs of whistle blowing as the writer slowly delves into the psychology of isolation and asks profound questions about the structures and institutions of the world that we live in. Farthing’s dazed expression reminds of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, stranded in a strange land, looked on with suspicion and passive hostility, unable to find a way to trust anyone. Dunne’s character is teasingly enigmatic, leaving Andrew and us confused as to whether the woman is helper, interrogator or agent provocateur.
Is anything what it seems or a convenient illusion? Is Andrew and are we looking at the world through clear crystal or staring into a hall of mirrors? For a while, it appears possible that the play could fizzle out in unsatisfactory fashion, but then comes the thunderbolt as Bartlett conspires with director James MacDonald and designer Miriam Buether to turn everything around. There are occasions when a coup de théâtre can fuse together spoken words and visual images so perfectly that an entire play is explained and defined in minutes or even seconds. Stephen Daldry’s legendary production of An Inspector Calls provides an example of this rare phenomenon and here is another. This team takes its time hitting the back of the net, but suddenly, it is 1999 and Man U v Bayern all over again. We leave the theatre enlightened, elated and completely stunned.
Performance date: 15 June 2016