Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The President Has Come To See You - Part of the Open Court Season 10 June - 20 July 2013

Lasha Bugadze translated by Donald Rayfield
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Ferdy Roberts, Laura Elphinstone, Farzana Dua Elahe, Debbie Chazen, Ryan Sampson, Sam Troughton, Jonjo O'Neill, Alan Williams in The President Has Come To See You Credit: Helen Murray
Ferdy Roberts, Ryan Sampson, Laura Elphinstone in The President Has Come To See You Credit: Helen Murray
Paul Bhattacharjee, Alan Williams, Debbie Chazen in The President Has Come To See You Credit: Helen Murray
Siobhan Redmond, Paul Bhattacharjee, Ryan Sampson, Ferdy Roberts in The President Has Come To See You Credit: Helen Murray

Democracy at work in a short attention span multimedia world is new artistic director Vicky Featherstone’s Open Court six-week summer season concept at the Royal Court. ‘The writers have the keys’ to a venture / adventure, the like of which has not been seen before in Sloane Square.

Brainstorming ‘the writer’s theatre’ idea that is the Royal Court, what does a new director, the first female artistic director at the Court, come from the National Theatre of Scotland, which had no permanent home, do? Why she opens the doors to everyone for a festival of theatre and new writing, bursting with ideas.

It’s not in with the new and out with the old, as she takes over from Dominic Cooke, but it’s definitely a refreshing clean slate approach and a tasty teaser before the start of her first season in September.

Consulting everyone in the building, and some one hundred and forty writers, the result is such a plethora of events in the usually fairly quiet months of June and July that it is impossible to take them all in. No matter, the idea is to go and take a chance, dip your hands into the bran tub and see what prize you can pull out.

It’s a calculated risk, but the sheer volume of events (check the web site) is already creating a buzz and a younger demographic. Surprise Theatre, Playwright @ Your Table, Lost in Theatre treasure hunt (free), Found Plays (send yours in), Friday Nights Big Idea, Kids Court, Soap Opera in Peckham, Theatre Local, an Anthony Nielsen collaboration, international theatre—a veritable summer fête at reasonable prices.

At the heart of this festivity is the six-week weekly rep, an idea suggested by Caryl Churchill, in the main Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, which opens with Lasha Bugadze’s ‘absurd comedy about cowardice and power’, The President Has Come To See You, translated from the original Georgian by Donald Rayfield, Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian.

From an ensemble of fourteen actors and four directors (Carrie Cracknell, John Tiffany and Caroline Steinbeis are the other directors in the melting pot), a new play a week from ‘playwrights just beginning their relationship with the Royal Court’ tackling themes ‘from birth to death, friendship, coming of age and revolution’, gets a proper staging, though press are not invited for proper reviews in view of the one-week rehearsal period. This is rough theatre on the hoof. And this is a rough review.

Bugadze is fortunate to have the artistic director herself directing his eighty-minute no interval opening play, a farcical black political satire, which borrows from Gogol, Joe Orton, and reminded my companion of the lampooning 1960s show That Was The Week That Was, on the state of the feeble womanizing president and his people during the Russian invasion of Georgia in summer 2008.

Developed on the 2011 Royal Court International Residency and first staged as a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court in March 2013 as part of the Royal Court’s season of New Plays from Georgia and Ukraine, The President Has Come To See You is fleshed out by designer Chloe Lamford with a wooden flatpack box building that falls open (Buster Keatonesquely missing the president as he speaks to camera) into a living room scene where the occupants are listening to him on the television, one of them (Siobhan Redmond) holding the aerial aloft.

The unraveling president in existential crisis seeks to hide himself in plain sight of his people by seeking sanctuary in their homes, but life is a brain-sapping fake-reality TV show. His aides abandon him, and his security run away. Bugadze aims for the lowest common denominator—his Georgian citizens are not the finest specimens.

The context of the play may not be familiar to the young audience filling the seats, snickering in the right and wrong places. Humour is difficult to translate culturally at the best of times, political satire in translation is an even bigger ask.

Anyway, hats off to all, especially Paul Bhattacharjee as the President for taking on such a big part with only a week to learn his lines. His supporting multi-role-playing cast are the underused Siobhan Redmond, deadpan Alan Williams, Jonjo O’Neill the self-harming absconding soldier with a phantom pregnancy, Debbie Chazen, Ryan Sampson, Sam Troughton, Laura Elphinstone, Ferdy Roberts, and Frazana Dua Elahe.

Reviewer: Vera Liber