Killing Castro

Brian Stewart
Theatre Royal, Haymarket Productions, in association with Richard Jordan Productions Ltd., and Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2006)

Production photograph

In 1956 an exiled young Cuban lawyer landed in Cuba (his small yacht Granma is now meticulously maintained in a museum in Havana) intent on a revolution which would depose the US controlled puppet dictator, Batista. The first attempt failed and the revolutionaries took to the hills, but gradually the local people began to join them and in 1959 another endeavour had the Cubans of the US army being sent to repress the rebels, leading to the farcical situation where most of the army changed sides and Fidel Castro took over the running of the country – changing one dictator for another perhaps, but giving his people back their self esteem and, most importantly establishing free education, free health care – and hope!

A true socialist (and sportsman), Castro tried to create a level playing field and to remove the enormous differences between rich and poor. He immediately confiscated the land and businesses owned not only by Americans, but also by some rich Cubans, and took these under state control, giving no compensation. Now the US had to fight back. Not only were their business interests threatened, but they had also lost their tropical paradise island playground with servants and prostitution on hand to entertain them. Cuba was now being supported by Communist Russia and the McCarthy era warning of “Reds” stealthily infiltrating America was still uppermost in their minds. They had to get rid of Castro – the charismatic leader revered by his people - but how to achieve this?

The scene is set in 1960 in a meeting room of the Central Intelligence Agency Headquarters where four men are discussing how to accomplish their aim. The leader of this ‘intelligence’ operation is Ted Torphy (Edward Hardwicke), a founder of the CIA and his invitation to “let your imaginations roam free, and don’t be afraid to be laughed at” is quite literally taken to heart as the ludicrous suggestions for Castro’s demise are floated, considered, argued over and dismissed.. The office situation is just as absurd as projectors won’t work, marker pens have run dry and communication is lacking – just another day in the workplace then – but it is finally decided that they have two options, either assassination of Castro or destabilisation of the Cuban economy. The Americans will liberate the people!

Assassination seeming the simplest and quickest method, the suggestions arrive – and ridiculous though they seem, it is verified that these were actual plans. They cover an exploding cigar (or even seashell) or sending a poisonous snake to him through the mail, but it must be small snake to save on postage. They could send the Cubans a picture of Castro living in luxury while they are still so poor, or they could put poisonous thallium powder in his shoes to make his beard fall out – the idea being that it is only bearded men who can be charismatic heroes. It makes good, if frightening, comedy – making you despair that those in charge of our affairs are not in charge of their brains. You couldn’t make it up, could you?

Square-jawed, all American, military tough guy Bill Brawner (an impressive and very credible performance from Clive Mantle) has no patience with these plans – he wants action. Why not just shoot the man when he arrives in New York? The CIA must not be implicated in any way and for a price he can arrange this, but they must have permission from the president. So ends Act 1 as Torphy picks up the red telephone.

Well directed by David Giles, there are excellent convincing performances from all concerned, with Michael Praed’s laid-back character of Technical Operations, Tom Madison, regarding his post as just another job to pay the bills, contrasting nicely with the more idealistic young Harvard educated lawyer Paul Drake (Joe Shaw).

It is a little hard to sustain concentration for the whole of the second act – it is only four men talking and no action – but it livens up in the confrontation between right-wing Brawner extolling the virtues of McCarthyism and the more liberal minded Drake putting a more humanitarian view.

Kenneth Mellor’s office set is admirable, but what is even more striking is the front curtain depicting a caricature of Fidel complete with huge smoking cigar, the whole abruptly disappearing as if by magic. A trick the CIA would like to copy. Forty seven years on and they’re still trying.

Beginning its tour at Guildford it continues to Brighton, Malvern, Greenwich, Cambridge, Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent, Richmond, Southend and Eastbourne.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor