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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Observer
Cottesloe Theatre      Summer 2009

There is a type of play that is driven by its subject, and the author's desire to bring that subject into public awareness and discussion.

If it can be dressed in an involving human story, so much the better, but it is the topic that instigated the play and that is its primary focus.

Matt Charman's new drama is that sort of play. His subject is the slow movement toward democracy in some Third World countries, and the ways in which the West's encouragement of the process may be both self-serving and dangerous.

His central character is part of an international team monitoring an African country's first free elections.

Though she's just there to observe, she convinces herself that helping to register voters is a neutral helping-along of the process, even though she knows that most of the new voters will oppose the sitting government.

Meanwhile her own government has been watching her, and essentially letting her do their dirty work for them.

The play shows us how easily the woman can be seduced by her own rationalisations and half-conscious prejudices, and just about all the human drama of the play lies in that process.

So playwright Charman and director Richard Eyre are fortunate to have Anna Chancellor in the role. The actress dynamically holds the stage and our sympathy while conveying the sometimes contradictory qualities of intelligence, passion and self-delusion.

But of course the playwright isn't primarily interested in her. He wants us to think about the unclear morality and motives of imposing our political and social values on others.

And here, oddly enough, is where the play falters a bit, since Charman seems to be too instinctively even-handed to be an effective polemicist.

The play tells us all the reasons why pushing democracy can be wrong and the motives of those who help suspect, but it also shows us a people being freed from a brutal dictator and given the first exhilarating sensation of (to use one of the play's favourite words) empowerment.

There are strong performances also from Chuk Iwuji as the heroine's translator and confidant, and by James Fleet as the seemingly ineffectual consular official who has been using her all along.

You may very well leave this play unsure of just where the playwright stands on the issues he has raised. But if you leave this play thinking about the issues, he will probably consider the experience a success.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Observer - National Theatre 2009

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