With its recent production of Alan Ayckbourn’s trio of plays, The Norman Conquests, the Old Vic was making serious theatre, event theatre, and winning over the critics and public alike in the process; after his hit and miss beginnings in the role, Kevin Spacey it seemed had really started to deliver the goods in his capacity as Artistic Director.
Complicit sets the clock back by some way. We’re not talking Resurrection Blues levels of calamity, but we’re not far off.
The production, directed by Spacey himself, has been beset with problems from the start.
The press night was originally scheduled for 19th January but this was moved back to the 28th to allow for more ‘development time’ and apparently so that Richard Dreyfuss could get to grips with the script; the actor, it was said, was struggling, to the point where he needed to be fed his lines through an earpiece.
It was of course Dreyfuss who, a few years back, had been lined up to co-star with Lee Evans in the London production of The Producers, and was subsequently removed at the last minute to be replaced by Nathan Lane. That’s not a tactic that would have helped here though. Indeed, on the night I saw it, Dreyfuss gave a solid enough performance; the main problem was Joe Sutton’s play, which is a messy, perplexing thing that has apparently been subject to much snipping and trimming in the preview period.
In this oddly plodding three hander, Dreyfuss plays Ben Kritzer, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who has published a book about the US’s use of torture and is being threatened with a charge of espionage if he does not reveal the name of his government source.
Elizabeth McGovern plays his implausibly young wife, Judy, who pleads with him to abandon his ethics for her sake and the sake of their (unseen) children. “You’re a father,” she informs him repeatedly, fearing that he will go to prison if he does not hand over the name.
David Suchet plays the lawyer who is defending him and together the three of them debate the hell out of this predicament in a way that makes it difficult to believe in or care about any of the characters. One of the main problems is the dialogue. Sutton likes repetition. He uses it a lot. McGovern in particular has to say nearly all her lines twice over with a slightly different emphasis the second time around: “Have you been drinking?” she asks Ben, “Have you been drinking?” Sutton’s also fond of the mid-sentence trail off, but this rarely if ever feels like natural speech in the actors’ mouths, it just makes the play feel disjointed.
The pacing of the piece does not help. The scenes of dialogue are static and sluggish, broken up only by televised interludes showing Kritzer talking torture techniques with Andrew Marr. These sequences seem a little at odds with the American setting of the play but at least serve to break things up and provide some necessary texture.
For The Norman Conquests the Old Vic’s seating was reconfigured into an in-the-round space and this layout remains for this new production. But it really does the play no favours. Complicit is essentially a string of intense conversations, the circular nature of the dialogue suggesting claustrophobia, the system closing in on Kritzer, but this does not come across well at all as the actors shout at each other across the big shiny disc of the stage. It must be said that, from above, the design of this same stage, with its television monitors glinting under glass, does look undeniably impressive, but I wonder if the effect of this was the same in the stalls.
The performers do their best with what they’ve been given. Dreyfuss doesn’t do too badly at conveying a man forced into a corner (and from where I was sitting – some way back admittedly I couldn’t see an earpiece; he seemed to stall a couple of times but he wasn’t the only one to do so). Suchet has his strong moments and has sufficient presence to cope with the awkward performance space. McGovern, however, just sounds whiny for most of the time.
There are some nuggets of interest buried in this thing, questions about the way the rules of journalism and of politics have changed in the wake of the war on terror, but it’s likely that one’s attention will already be wavering by the time they start to be discussed.
Though it feels longer, the production wraps things up in less than two hours, interval included; people who saw the play in the preview period have described scenes of interrogation not in keeping with the rest of the piece, but these it seems have since been excised, which might account for the curtailed running time.