Terre Haute @ Trafalgar Studios, London

cast list
Peter Eyre
Arthur Darvill

directed by
George Perrin
Edmund White’s powerful two-hander, Terre Haute, treads a fine line between fiction and fact.

When in prison, on death row, Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh entered into a correspondence with the essayist Gore Vidal. Letters were exchanged (and Vidal wrote about McVeigh in a number of publications urging America not to dismiss him too easily), but they never actually met. White uses this as a springboard to “imagine” a scenario where an elderly writer, much like Vidal, visits a young man in prison, who much like McVeigh, has been convicted for the mass murder of 168 people.

To differentiate them from their real-life counterparts, White has named these characters James and Harrison, but as a result of the way it written and performed, it is hard to watch without thinking of Vidal and McVeigh. Despite this White manages to successfully steer the play past the reality/fiction issue and produce a work that is easy to appreciate on its own terms.

This is taut and thought-provoking theatre. The play is structured as a series of visits that James makes to Harrison’s cell at Terre Haute, the American prison in which he is incarcerated. As James’ tape-recorder captures their conversations, the men exchange ideas, they size each other up. On some things they find themselves in agreement, this urbane, Europeanised writer and this young uneducated gun fanatic; they both share a loathing of ‘big government’ and an anger and suspicion about how the Waco situation was handled by the FBI. Both men too, are facing death, as a result of old age, for one, and imminent execution for the other.

The play does not shy away from the reality of Harrison’s crime either, and the scene where James is no longer able to maintain his studied detached demeanour, when he snaps and screams at Harrison about the sacredness of human life – trying to illicit some sort of reaction, even the thinnest glimmer of regret – is particularly powerful.

As James, Peter Eyre gives a superb performance, subtle, thoughtful and poignant. The character of Harrison is also deftly played, by Arthur Darvill, as an articulate, intelligent man. Though chillingly devoid of remorse, he’s far more than the red-neck, survivalist stereotype he could have been in lesser hands.

This is a strong, compelling drama. It was a deserved success at last year’s Edinburgh fringe and is well-suited to the Trafalgar Studios’ smaller performance space. It does fall down a little towards the end, when it becomes clear that White’s interest lies more with the writer character, with the older man’s dreams and motivations, than with what made Harrison do what he did.

In the later scenes of the play, White (rather unnecessarily) depicts the bisexual James’ growing attraction to the younger man and allows this to overtake the more subtle and interesting aspects of their relationship.

That’s a small criticism though, Terre Haute is an excellent production, and at less than 80 minutes, one that hits you hard and leaves you hungry for more. And as such, it’s one well worth seeing.

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