The Theatreguide.London Review
The President of an Empty Room
Cottesloe Theatre Summer 2005
Steven Knight's new play is set in a Cuban cigar factory, where the boss's absence (We'll eventually learn where and why) inspires one worker to jokingly declare himself Acting President.
The others go along with the gag for the fun of it and to distract him from the pain of his girlfriend's leaving last night on a boat escape to Florida.
In the course of the play revelations will be made about infidelities, broken hearts, falsely-ascribed paternity and misdirected jealousies. A voodoo witch doctor will be consulted, and one or more mystical spirits raised.
And I haven't even gotten to the drug addict, the closeted homosexual, the wheelchair-bound Angolan war veteran, the Michael Jackson-fixated working girls or the group's mother figure, who is a few tobacco leaves short of a cheroot herself.
There is enough material here to keep a Brazilian soap opera busy for years, and that's just one strand of the play. While all this is going on, there's also the whole mystical level, the evocation of the power of Cuban music, commentary on Cuban-American relations and on the corrupting power of the tourist dollar, cigars as metaphor for something, and an implicit allegory of Castro's revolution.
In short, the problem is not that there is no play here, but that there are a dozen half-plays fighting for our attention. Steven Knight doesn't seem to have decided which one he wanted to write, and certainly doesn't help us figure out which one we should be focussing on.
Themes, subjects, topics, even reality levels switch without warning, and just as we are being drawn into one, another takes its place. A character who is pleasantly ineffectual in one scene will become gratuitously sadistic in the next. One who is as real as everyone else will, a moment later, be just a hallucination.
The play isn't even sure what it feels about its various subjects – after labouriously coming to the conclusion that voodoo is real, it undercuts that in the very final seconds.
Director Howard Davies is unable to give any stylistic continuity to all this, or to guide the audience through it. Paul Hilton gives an energetic performance in the central role, just bravely pushing past the fact that there is no consistency to his character from scene to scene.
Noma Dumezweni brings some comic energy to the not-quite-with-it older woman, and stalwarts Stephen Moore, Jim Carter and Anthony O'Donnell do what they can to make their underwritten characters make sense.
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