Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Fever

Wallace Shawn
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2009)

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Dominic Cooke has granted the highly original actor/playwright Wallace Shawn a well-deserved retrospective. Following this dive into the intricacies of the human mind and the world that it observes are a new play and an old (Aunt Dan and Lemon) together with a series of readings.

As a writer, Shawn might be seen as a kind of American cross between Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill in both his intellectual pursuits with left-leaning political overtones and desire to reinvent himself from play to play.

The first production in this season is an unusual solo attack on global poverty and inequality. The Fever has twice previously been seen at the Royal Court in Upstairs spaces. Eighteen years ago it was performed by the author and reappeared with Canadian actress Clare Coulter in 1997.

Indeed, in terms of numbers of performances, it has probably been seen more often in people's homes, where it was born, than purpose-built theatres. Cooke is therefore taking a risk by moving it on to the main stage and in doing so, loses some of the intimacy that is so important to the dramatic effect.

This time, the unnamed, unisex narrator is Clare Higgins who inhabits a part that she skilfully makes her own. The award-winning actress is possibly at her best in Greek tragedies but acquits herself well in this modern tragedy about a very different world on the brink of self-destruction.

Her character is a member of the well-heeled intelligentsia staying in a war zone hotel, perhaps in Nicaragua or sub-Saharan Africa. For this production there is no noticeable set and Miss Higgins is dressed in simple, casual clothing. We therefore have to imagine the forceful New Yorker spending the duration on the floor of the hotel bathroom, in the virulent grip of The Fever of the title.

As happens with a high temperature, her brain wanders somewhat randomly with film-like jump-cuts. For 90 minutes it poses a series of moral questions that we in civilised society generally prefer to avoid.

The protagonist does this by comparing her own glittery life with those of the poorest of the poor in the Third World. She is well-placed to do this, as a representative of a comfortable country where "commodity fetishism" rules observing its opposite, where Communism is not yet a devalued currency and poverty is de rigueur.

What makes this work so powerful is a great structure and strong imagery but also Shawn's ability to make us see both sides of arguments so that, at times, the sick brain debates against itself.

Clare Higgins is a superb actress and with the assistance of Cooke, moves up through the acting gears from a calm, collected opening to really traumatic later scenes.

Whether The Fever benefits from a large audience and theatre rather than the intimacy of a compact living room will be a subject for discussion but the power of the writing and performance on this occasion cannot be doubted.

Playing until 2 May

Reviewer: Philip Fisher