Terre Haute

Edmund White
Trafalgar Studios

Production photo

Terre Haute is a city in south west Indiana, about 200 miles south of Chicago. Two miles out of town is the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex, the location of a US federal death row, where the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was held and executed by lethal injection in 2001. In 1998 McVeigh read an article in Vanity Fair by Gore Vidal about "the shredding of our Bill of Rights" which referred to his case and began an intermittent correspondence with him over the next years, finally requesting Vidal to be present as a witness at his execution. When Vidal was informed of the execution date it was impossible for him to get there from his Italian home in time.

That is the source material for this play. The convicted killer of 168 men, women and children and the well-connected liberal writer never met. Edmund White has turned them into two fictional characters who do, though drawing on what Vidal has published of and about McVeigh and their correspondence for much of his material. As White himself confesses, in a programme note, much of himself has seeped into the character of James and adds a sexual element to their imagined meeting, and, although the character he names Harrison has perpetrated the same acts and often uses the same words as McVeigh, he too is not intended as a portrait of the real man, which has allowed the writer greater freedom in developing this now fictional relationship.

James is becoming crippled by a form of arthritis. He is forced to use a stick and, for longer distances, take to a wheelchair pushed by his manservant, a limitation of freedom and an intimation of the approach of death perhaps intended to parallel that of the condemned man whom we see inside a fine meshed cage, like a wild animal exhibited to satisfy our curiosity to see a killer. This also traps James himself between cage and audience. It is he who crosses from side to side, technically no doubt to avoid his back being always to the same part of the audience, but physically supporting the unease that Peter Eyre brings to his superficially suave performance.

I was not entirely convinced by his growing sexual attraction to the young man, partly because facially at least, Arthur Darvill hardly matches James's description of McVeight as 'pretty', and there was little indication of the 'flirtatiousness' that James suggests is there. However, both those could be a wish-projection on James's part and when McVeigh unbuttons his shirt to display his torso as a 'gift' to James both actors create a palpable frisson in the audience.

Darvill gives a finely controlled performance of the intelligent but blinkered young veteran of the Gulf War, relying on the writer to get across the point of his dreadful action as an act not against those who died but as part of a war against the FBI and the government who had, he believes, themselves been responsible for the massacre of the members of the Dravidian sect at Waco in 1993. His fears of US Government action are paralleled by those of Vidal and many others around the world (though unlike McVeigh they don't accepte the delusions of Andrew Macdonald's The Turner Diaries that they are at the instigation of a Marxist Rockerfeller and the United Nations!). In the Gulf McVeigh was given medals for killing because it was called war, now he asks what is the difference for this too was war.

All this is in the script, along with many key points from the correspondence, and Vidal's own experience of being cut off at the beginning a proposed 4-minute 'in-depth' television interview the moment he mentions Waco. Eventually McVeigh describes exactly how he carried out the bombing, something he had refused in court and since. If this is intended to be the high point of the play it fails, partly because there was nothing especially surprising in the revelation but also because the refusal and any possible reasons for it had not been clearly plotted. But White had clearly become as much, if not more, interested in exploring the relationship between his imaginary creations as uncovering facts and political issues. Neverthless, the issues raised by this play are important and the facts may be new to many in the audience. For anyone who wants to go deeper a good start would be Vidal's 2001 article in Vanity Fair which can be read on www.geocities.com/gorevidal3000/tim.htm

Composer Heather Fenoughty has provide a score using guitar and strings with a touch of Celtic folk sound whose sweetness underscores the contrast between this largely restrained exchange and the violence that is being talked about, with sudden heavy sonorous thuds whenever McVeigh enters or exits to suggest the opening and closing of cell doors, while Matthew Eagland's lighting, changing not only to mark different interviews but to allow moments of individual introspection, emphasises both men's isolation.

The minimalism of Hannah Clark's simple cage on a rostrum and only necessary chairs concentrates attention. A scattering of papers around the rostrum base is presumably to remind us that this confrontation grows from an exchange of letters and its unnecessary clutter goes unnoticed during the action, nor does one notice the rather ornate chair with which McVeigh is provided. What is this doing in a penitentiary? Is it there as a result of careful research or to suggest some affinity with James? Was it always present? I did not notice it for most of the performance - a very subtle touch if it was not.

Although this play got its first performance, in this production, at Edinburgh last year. it is heartening to know that it was developed in the US at the Sundance Institute and has now been produced in the US as well, playing last month in San Francisco

At Trafalgar Studios until 2nd June following a national tour.

Allison Vale reviewed this production on tour at the Drum, Plymouth

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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