Anna Chancellor, James Fleet, Chuk Iwuji, Leo Bill, Daon Broni, Peter Forbes, Lloyd Hutchinson, Aicha Kossoko, Louis Mahoney, Cyril Nri, Isabel Pollen, Joy Richardson
Matt Charman’s new drama is nothing if not topical.
A departure from his two previous London-set plays A Night at the Dogs and The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder, The Observer takes on a more ambitious, international perspective in its examination of the moral ambiguities of election monitoring in a fictitious West African state.
With the memories of last year’s violently disputed Zimbabwe elections still fresh in the mind, the play presents the plausible scenario of a foreign monitor stepping over the line from observing to intervening in the politics of the host country.
The well-meaning but nave Fiona Russell, deputy chief of the observation team, decides to register more rural voters who support the more liberal opposition candidate to the incumbent president, who has used suppressive tactics to influence the outcome.
While Fiona’s weak inexperienced Norwegian boss Henrik lets her run the show, her loyal but troubled native translator Daniel Okeke thinks she has gone too far although he wants a more democratic president. Meantime Fiona herself is being observed not just openly by the BBC TV reporter Declan to whom she leaks the election results and by the intimidating head of the military General Okute, but secretly by the minor British Embassy official Saunders who spies on her emails and phone calls for his reports to the Foreign Office.
Charman’s intelligent play focuses on the important but thorny issue of the West’s involvement with developing countries (especially tricky ex-colonial relations) as they seek to encourage democracy without being seen to be getting involved in their internal affairs. The most dramatic scenes are those that show the friction between the external monitors and the national authorities, though the thriller elements are rather half-baked as the suspense leads to an underwhelming finale.
Richard Eyre’s skilful direction keeps a tight grip on the drama, while Rob Howell’s design of hanging matted walls and lush vegetation suggests a tropical ambience and Jon Driscoll’s projections of TV newscasts put the events in a world media context.
Anna Chancellor makes a sympathetic, courageous Fiona, occasionally condescending but genuinely idealistic as she changes from cool professional neutrality to committed emotional involvement with her ambivalent cause and with Daniel, played with sensitivity by Chuk Iwuji. Peter Forbes is the out-of-depth bureaucrat Henrik, Lloyd Hutchinson the hard-bitten hack Declan and Cyril Nri the quietly menacing General Okute. James Fleet is excellent as the shadowy John Le Carr figure Saunders, addressing the audience directly with his casually cynical comments on the nature of international realpolitik.