Oxford Stage Company at the Arcola Theatre
What is it that attracts me so much to the Arcola Theatre? It is the space. A post-industrial building of some sort or another, it retains an atmosphere of something inherently dramatic, but otherwise entirely untheatrical. An educated guess tells me that it is well nigh impossible to work in Arcola's performance area without the intrinsic alienation affect so sought-after by Brecht and so misunderstood in Britain. And I find this exciting and dangerous.
A good director will take what the space offers as a boon and work with it to elicit a thoughtful response in an audience seeking intelligent engagement. Dominic Dromgoole has rightfully recognised that Eric Schlosser's political play is at its most effective when the staging enhances the provocation elicited in the writing, when the all-too-familiar costume drama of British stage and TV is rendered as 'epic theatre' rather than realism. Dromgoole uses this space, including the two iron girders that dissect the playing area obtrusively, to great effect so that the spectators are disengaged from an emotional journey and become unwitting witnesses to history-making in the process.
Set in 1901, Americans presents us with the assassination of one of the US's most forgettable presidents, William McKinley. A 'nice' man in the wrong job, his untimely demise in office leaves the political stage open for his vice-president 'Teddy' Roosevelt. In retrospect this event has more impact on the world stage in the present day than McKinley's contemporaries imagine. And his well-meaning assassin, Leon Czolgosz, unexpectedly paves the way for the American imperialism he so despises by putting Roosevelt in office without the need to campaign for an uncertain election to the White House. That, of course, is the Theodore Roosevelt, who grasped the opportunities offered by the weakening of the British Empire, its disastrous war in South African, and the slow but steady transference of financial power from the City to Wall Street. For Roosevelt and his cohorts, the newly acquired US territories in the aftermath of the war with Spain, the Phillipines and Puerto Rico, form the basis for a world domination which is inevitably and ineluctably the US's future.
Americans has a few lapses of focus in the first act when the import of the material to the overall picture seems vague and questionable. However, in the second half it gathers momentum and the writing thrusts ever forward even at its most explanatory. Dromgoole and his cast have given us a production that is expertly paced, the dialogue timed to perfection. Utilising all the potential of the vast space, Dromgoole uses the episodic nature of the short scenes to make powerful vignettes, contained by the low-ceilinged lighting and jogging our attention from one playing area to another.
The acting cannot be faulted at all, but even in a cast that shines Bo Poraj stands out for his portrayal of the torment, idealism and ambiguity at the heart of the assassin Leon. Paul Rider's roles vary from brash newspaperman to the frighteningly self-assured Roosevelt, and Graham Turner transforms with ease giving solidity to a range of characters minor in the number of lines they are accorded but all crucial to the narrative's pith.
One cannot but watch this production with all the cognisance of 20th century imperialism, capitalist corruption and media manipulation that would barely have been evident to the man-in-the-street in 1901, especially as Schlosser artfully employs a singular analogy. In 1901 America had just fought its first imperialist war, in 2003 we are witnesses to the steadily worsening effects of their latest imperialist adventure.
It is significant that it is Leon the assassin, incarcerated and awaiting the inevitable and seemingly desired death by electric chair, who functions as our intermediary. A good man thrown off balance by experience, compelled by his belief in humanity, in wrong and right, in the conviction that a president who could sign a declaration of war that is effectively a death warrant for thousands of American soldiers and civilians alike must be stopped, he evokes the frustrations of 21st century voters disillusioned by our political representatives. The only difference is that Leon expects his assassination to be taken as a cry for freedom, to give him a platform from which his ideals will reach the masses and that well-informed voters will not tolerate an unjust world.
Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher