Though originally written in 1994, Jason Sherman’s politically intricate play about weapons development and the nature of the intelligence services, here receiving its European premiere at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, still seems like a very relevant work.
Originally commissioned and performed in Toronto, the issues dealt with in Three In The Back are those that are presently concerning politicians and the public in the UK. The play seems particularly farsighted in view of the September 11 attacks in 2001 as well as the July 7th bombings in London this year, raising questions about America’s role in policing the world whilst retaining a necessary ambiguity.
Set in 1990, the narrative shifts between a CIA office in Washington to locations in Canada and Europe, quite a feat given the uniquely intimate in-the-round space of the Orange Tree. Sherman draws on real events in his drama: the killing of Gerald Bull, a Canadian scientist intent on developing a super-gun, who was assassinated in 1990, some say by Mossad others suggest by the CIA.
Working from this basic premise, Sherman has carefully crafted a piece which plays with the audience’s perception of morality in the grey area of scientific and military research.
Rod Beacham plays Canadian scientist Donald Jackson, whose lifelong ambition was to create a weapon that would help protect not kill; his ‘Snowman’ project would build a machine capable of projecting a satellite into space which would then detonate shrapnel into the atmosphere and thus destroy an enemy’s long range missile before it reached its target.
We are first introduced to him at the height of the Cold War, when a United States general Ed Sparrow, played very convincingly by Vincent Brimble, recruits him to test ‘Snowman’ for the US government. The play however begins with an exchange in a CIA office in Virginia between Donald’s son Paul, played by Qarie Marshall, and CIA operative John Doyle, wonderfully played by Kevin Doyle. It’s a fine piece of acting, the character starting off as one kind of man and ending up as another; the layers gradually peeling away without it ever feeling forced.
The story unfolds in flashback and the characters are often required to narrate to Paul any conversations that took place. This device allows Sherman to fully demonstrate the way in which the truth can get lost as people remember events; as characters deliberately lie or misrepresent the past the ambiguity is heightened and the audience can’t help but become sceptical about everything that is being recounted to Paul. This feeling persists to the end and you are left with the sense that you are only being presented with one possible version of events.
This interesting production’s weakest link is unfortunately that of Donald’s wife Anna. Pat Starr does her best with the clichd wife/mother role but she is given little to do but sit on the sidelines and worry. This is very much a male orientated chess game of a play – how difficult would it have been to, say, make the CIA operative a woman? But I digress…
Three In the Back has the intense thriller-like quality of a Len Deighton novel but it teams it with a more political and moral sensibility in its examination of the issues of military weaponry, terrorism, intelligence and national security. The result is a compelling gem of a play and well worth seeing.