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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Thursday 23rd June 2005

President of an Empty Room / Telstar / As You Like It


I had quite high expectations when the curtain went up on President of an Empty Room. The writer, Steven Knight, produced the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Dirty Pretty Things and the director, Howard Davies, was responsible for Mourning Becomes Electra, one of my favourite productions of 2003. Nor was I the only one who thought this sounded like a winning combination. The press night audience included Derek Jacobi, Imelda Staunton and Stephen Sondheim.

First impressions seemed to confirm this optimism. The designer, Bunny Christie, has ingeniously managed to convert the Cottesloe into a Cuban cigar factory and the atmospheric lighting design by Mark Henderson underlines the audience's sense of being in a claustrophobic sweatbox, with sunlight streaming in through half-shuttered windows. The scene is set for an epic confrontation.

10 minutes in, and I was still hopeful. Admittedly, the hot-tempered cigar-rollers hadn't yet quarrelled about anything more significant than whether to play music or listen to poetry on the factory's public address system, but this seemed like a bit of unobjectionable throat clearing on the playwright's part. Any moment now, I thought, someone is going to uncover evidence that there's a Communist informer in their ranks and it's all going to kick off in a wonderfully melodramatic style.

45 minutes later, when the workers were still squabbling about what to listen to, it began to dawn on me that President of an Empty Room was never going to take flight. By now, every cliché about Cuba had been faithfully wheeled out, including the prevalence of commercial sex, the excellence of the country's health service and the willingness of so many Cubans to risk a perilous sea voyage to start a new life in America--and I began to doubt whether I'd get through the rest of the evening without several banana daiquiris. The entire play is about as original as the headline on the travel piece in the programme: "Cuba: a land of contrasts." If il Comandante of The Spectator hadn't ordered me to see everything I review in its entirety I would have fashioned a life raft out of my seat and rowed my way to freedom.

Telstar, a new play by Nick Moran and James Hicks, is a bit more lively, but it's so amateurishly constructed that it feels less like a finished piece of work than a messy first draft. It chronicles the rise and fall of Joe Meek, an eccentric British record producer who, for a brief period in the 60s, managed to churn out a string of hits from his flat above a handbag shop on the Holloway Road. It has a couple of good scenes and Meek himself is well realised by Con O'Neill, but the writers don't have a reliable sense of what information to disclose and what to withhold.

For instance, we're never told why the producer of the biggest-selling instrumental record of all time, among other commercial triumphs, continued to live and work in such impoverished surroundings. At one point it's suggested that Meek's business partner, a rather fishy character called "the Major", cheated him out of all his royalties, but this plot strand is left hanging. Perhaps most significantly, the writers never succeed in explaining how Meek's musical genius is linked to his various personality disorders. His tragic demise--the character blows his brains out with a shotgun after first murdering his landlady--seems almost arbitrary, when it should be the inevitable product of his tortured soul.

As You Like It is a peculiar combination of high and lowbrow elements, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Take the casting of the two female leads. As Rosalind we have Helen McCrory, a 35-year-old stage actress who was nominated for an Evening Standard Award in 2002, whereas Celia, who is supposed to be her exact contemporary, is played by Sienna Miller, Jude Law's 23-year-old girlfriend. The same schizophrenia applies to the casting of the men. The romantic lead is played by Dominic West, who gives a very solid, classical performance, while Jaques is played by Reece Shearsmith of League of Gentleman fame and Touchstone by Sean Hughes, a stand-up comic.

It isn't just the cast, either. This version of the play is set in France in the late 1940s, but while the set by Richard Hudson evokes the period in a minimalist, post-modern sort of way, the music by Tim Sutton is a non-stop barrage of 'La Vie En Rose'-type accordion sounds. For the duration of its two hours and 55 minutes running time, I had no idea whether the next person to appear on stage was going to be on a bicycle with a string of onions round his neck--or stark naked on a unicycle.

It's almost as if the director, David Lan, took a high-minded, avant-garde production of As You Like It and decided to mix it up, in a seemingly random way, with a very commercial affair that's been solely designed to put bums on seats. The result is neither one thing nor the other. I think I'd like to see one or other of these productions, but not both--and certainly not at the same time and in this combination.

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