Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Alex Timbers, music by Michael Friedman
Bernard B Jacobs Theatre, New York
(2010)

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson production photo

History was never like this at school, at least not in the UK.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is, at least in theory, a biographical retelling of the life of America's seventh president.

In the hands of Alex Timbers, who also directs a production first seen at the prolific Public Theater, it becomes an anarchic post-punk romp that would surely make the tough, early 18th Century frontiersman revolve in his grave.

You know that something strange is going to happen as soon as you peek into the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. The auditorium is festooned with red fairy lights and adorned with paintings not only of old codgers (presumably presidents) but also, inter alia, suspended from the ceiling an inverted dead buffalo and birthday cake, presumably symbolising a world turned upside down.

The lively music, from Michael Friedman, who is best known for his collaborations with The Civilians, and a three-piece band supplemented by a couple of the actors when extra guitar power is needed is pure rock. This provides an early anachronism that sets the tone for an evening of spectacularly bad taste.

That may be appropriate given the question that hangs over Jackson's life. Was he "A great president" or "An American Hitler"? Inevitably the answer is a little of each.

This president with rock star black eye shadow grew up in the days of the Wild West when Tennessee was threatened by Indians (as they were then known), Spaniards and the English. By the time that he reached maturity, young Andrew had been orphaned by a brace of native's arrows (or cholera). As with much else in this script, the facts are at best ambivalent.

From this harsh start, he became a frontier fighter, ridding his country of enemies like a tough superhero, who can cuss and slaughter with the best of them. In those days before political correctness, killing unfortunates who differed from you was a sign of strength and to be admired rather than vilified.

Benjamin Walker in the leading role has a rock hero's manner and aggression, as well as the dangerous charm that comes with that job and coincidentally seems just right for such a self-obsessed leader of his nation.

The irony of his life is that it apparently has parallels today, as this man of the people creates a new party, the Democrats. Teabags strangely get a mention and there are seemingly thinly disguised references to the most recent failed vice-presidential candidate.

After his rise to the top, Jackson's tenure was threatened by two black clouds, the suggestion that his marriage to Maria Elena Ramirez's Rachel was bigamous and the suggestion that he was not above ethnically cleansing the Native Americans whom he had in some cases befriended.

This complicated individual is probably as little known in his home country as in Britain and therefore BBAJ should act as a good history lesson as well as a political diatribe.

However, what the mostly young audiences will take away from the theatre is the feel-good factor that they would enjoy at a well-choreographed rock concert. The production values in terms of singing, dancing and creating spectacle are all high.

Where viewers might differ is on some of the indulgence given to Timbers the writer by Timbers the director. The script of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is often undisciplined with extended bouts of childish humour slowing the flow, without adding much in return.

Having said that, the mixture of far from dry history and musical energy eventually win the day in fine fashion.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher