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The Theatreguide.London Review

Hampstead Theatre  Summer 2016

A young man who has, like the real-life Edward Snowden, released Top Secret documents exposing the extent of the US government's surveillance on its citizens and others, is on the run, holed up in a Moscow hotel. 

He is visited separately by a man and woman who he hopes work for a shadowy but powerful Julian Assange-type figure who can offer him protection. But he begins to suspect that they are more interested in exploiting than helping him, or may just be toying with him for their own sadistic entertainment. 

Playwright Mike Bartlett takes the very risky route of deliberate mystification, withholding a lot of information from us and keeping us unclear not only about what's going on but about what he wants us to think and feel about it. 

Is whistle-blowing a good or bad thing? Are we meant to see the young man as hero, traitor or just fool? Is the playwright ultimately interested at all in the morality either of government invasions of privacy or of exposures of dangerous secrets, or even in the plight of the self-created fugitive? 

What, you may well ask more than once, is the point of this play? 

Deliberate mystification can get rather annoying after a while, and you may well find yourself losing patience with the playwright and interest in the play as things get murkier and murkier. 

As one of the visitors points out, the majority of the population don't care one way or another about the moral issues the play seemed to be raising, and a monumental plot twist near the end, involving the seeming suspension of the laws of physics, seems to say that nobody onstage was ever really much interested in them either. 

The whole play, the ending seems to say, was really about showing the young man how completely out of any familiar reality he had taken himself by so radically breaking the rules, and showing us how clever playwright Bartlett, designer Miriam Buether and 'consulting illusionist' Ben Hart are. 

The play does offer a showcase for one bravura performance. While Jack Farthing has little to do but look confused as the boy and John Mackay is asked for little more than generic quiet menace as the male visitor, director James Macdonald and actress Caoilfhionn Dunne make the woman a protean and mercurial mass of wit, intelligence and sexual power. 

Now threatening, now sympathetic, now seductive, always enigmatic, she keeps the young man and the audience off balance by changing the games she's playing faster than he or we can keep up with. 

We may never figure out what the character is up to or why she's doing it. But we cannot help being mesmerised by the cleverness and evident self-delight with which she does it all and the unflagging energy and inventiveness with which the actress makes her so dynamic and fascinating.

Gerald Berkowitz

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