When the World is Falling Down
by Mike Bartlett
directed by James Macdonald
Andrew, the central character in Mike Bartlett’s new play, may as well have just been called Edward Snowden. He is a whistle-blower from the United States who leaked information about government surveillance and has found himself a fugitive, trapped in Russia, with nowhere to turn. Even the actor playing Andrew, Jack Farthing, looks remarkably like Snowden. Over the course of the play, he is visited separately by two representatives of the same nameless organisation, run by a man simply known as ‘him’. Given the little information they are willing to share, neither Andrew nor we can be sure of their credibility. Certainly, they seem to be playing a game and it isn’t always clear what their overall aims are, other than to deeply unsettle Andrew.
The nameless woman (Caoilfhionn Dunne) visits first. She chatters away at a super-fast pace, which isn't exactly menacing... or intelligible. She makes weak jokes and seems like a bit of a confused character. At times she seems unsettlingly devoid of personality, which is intriguing, yet at others she seems bizarrely unstable and desperate, such as when she brags about her own intelligence and tries to get Andrew to say that he fancies her. The character is so peculiar, I found myself wondering at times whether or not she was 'real' (although perhaps that is the point). Dunne gives a firecracker of a performance, utterly committed to the role. However the pacing is slightly off, and the way political topics are tossed about like wet fish feels contrived and ultimately loses the audience a little.
Next, Andrew is visited by the nameless man (John Mackay). He is certainly calmer than his counterpart, and his visit feels a little more threatening. He claims to be the real representative of ‘him’ and that he does not know who the nameless woman is, which sends Andrew into a panic, much to the nameless man’s amusement. He pushes further, suggesting that he may be an assassin rather than who he said he is, making Andrew all the more edgy and uncertain, as he realises in this macro to micro shift, how easy it is to be deceived. Here the timing is better; many moments tight with tangible tension under James Macdonald's guidance.
Bartlett makes some interesting points but I can’t help but feel that they are represented a bit haphazardly and could be more coherent. The frivolous comedy and the thriller-esque intrigue undermine the points he is trying to make so they don’t land as effectively as perhaps they could. There is a whole scene where Andrew is inexplicably topless which feels like an unnecessary and cheap stage tactic; also the long blackouts between scene changes where no set changes take place are distancing and seem pointless.
However, there is a saving grace at the end: a spectacular coup de théâtre, which shifts the whole play onto its edge, leaving the audience breathless. I shan’t spoil the surprise, but suffice to say it encapsulates Bartlett’s central idea about the unreliability of the world we live in a unique and exciting way. Although the bulk of the play isn’t exactly perfect, the shift at the end is really quite special. Miriam Buether's design redefines what a set can be and what is can represent in an inventive and clever way. And a special mention should go to the stage management crew, those invisible heroes of theatre who are especially instrumental in the running of this performance.
Although I found much of the early dialogue disappointing and the characters not as complex as perhaps they could have been, the play really comes into its own at the end. It is essential viewing for that alone.
photos | ©Stephen Cummiskey