Review – Terre Haute, Trafalgar Studios

Saturday 12 May 2007

Well, what on earth will they think of next in London’s West End? An absorbing, thought-provoking drama with excellent performances and the opportunity to be back in the pub next door within 80 minutes (no interval) . Available for half price at the TKTS booth. Programme just £2. Perfect.

Phil was unable to make Terre Haute at the Trafalgar Studios last night due to what he grandly terms “business commitments” which probably means that he and the rest of the matrons from the typing pool had discovered a new Happy Hour somewhere.

So it was that Andrew soldiered through the rain alone repetitively rehearsing under his breath his (imagined) pronunciation of the words “terre haute” so as to impress the staff at the TKTS booth with his (imagined) cosmopolitanism.

All in vain really, since this play takes its name from the US Federal Correctional Complex at Terre Haute and the Americans reserve their right to say “Terra Hote” – in fact it’s probably enshrined in one of the zillion amendments to their sacred constitution.

Anyhow, writer Edmund White has “imagined” a series of visits by author Gore Vidal to Terre Haute where he interviews Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh during his last days on death row.

Although the meetings never took place, Vidal was an advocate of the need for the need to understand why McVeigh did what he did, and his writings in Vanity Fair and elsewhere led to McVeigh inviting Vidal to be a witness at his execution by lethal injection. Vidal intended to go but McVeigh’s surprise abandonment of his appeals meant that Vidal was unable to make the trip from his home in Italy in time.

Too much information? Well, one of the problems the Whingers often have with “imagined” plays based on a grain of truth is that they spend far too much time wondering which bits are true and which are “imagined”.

White valiantly attempts to eliminate this distraction through the simple expediency of naming the characters “James” and “Harrison”. But James is explicitly the man who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people and performer Arthur Darvill bears more than a passing resemblance to McVeigh. Harrison is a venerable US author living in Europe and actor Peter Eyre looks and sounds like Gore Vidal. So in a way the play, the casting, the writing and the direction conspire to make it more confusing to dyed-in-the-wool literalists such as the Whingers.

But this is all nit-picking (which is what we do best, after all).

White draws explores some interesting parallels between James and Harrison. Both are facing death and both – as in real life – share the same outrage at the US government’s “unconstitutional” killing of 79 people during the Waco siege (McVeigh’s bombing was timed to take place two years to the day after Waco).

They are also both pariahs of the American government and media – McVeigh for not only being a murdering terrorist but an American one and Vidal for his ongoing campaign to “defend the American Republic against the American Empire”. What separates them is how they chose to express themselves – murder (learned in the US military) vs. letters.

It’s fascinating material which doesn’t need much to make it absorbing drama, so it’s a shame that White has felt the need to add a plotline in which the ageing and bisexual James lusts after the handsome and virginal Harrison, a sexual tension which could have more effectively been left hanging in the air rather than being shoehorned to form the play’s climax.

But this is more nit-picking (told you). It’s interesting stuff and the performances are excellent. Darvill (just out of drama school) struggles manfully with a slightly underwritten role. Eyre has taken Vidal’s gravitas and embraced White’s never-seen-in-Vidal-before layer of self-doubt to deliver a terrific performance.

A bonus to the evening was that Andrew bumped into fellow theatre blogger John Morrison in the theatre bar beforehand and went to the pub afterwards for a chinwag. John – noted for his fast writing – seems not to have blogged the experience yet so presumably is waiting for Andrew’s critique in order to make sure he agrees with it.

Or possibly he his putting more thought into it than Andrew. Or possibly – unlike Andrew – he has a life and therefore more important and interesting things to do.

Finally, it is worth underlining the fact that Andrew came away from the theatre wanting to know more which is a real achievement on the part of the production. If you want to know more too, there are some interesting links below. Andrew hopes that they were worth researching as his various Google searches for “Timothy McVeigh”, “Oklahoma bombing” and “Waco siege” mean that he is almost certainly now on some FBI watch-list somewhere.


Note to self: Delete this before publishing. Remember to tell Phil that the pub next door does wine ON TAP!!!! How classy is that?? Didn’t try asking for a pint because was a bit concerned that John might think it uncouth but we must definitely try it next time we go to the Trafalgar Studios.


5 Responses to “Review – Terre Haute, Trafalgar Studios”

  1. I’m finding myself agreeing with you chaps once again. This was a fantastic play, thought-provoking and compelling. It certainly made up for some of the duds I’ve seen of late…

  2. tkts cochon d'inde Says:

    we were very impressed with your pronunciation of ‘Terre Haute’ – the only customer to give good french! Think of the trouble we have with ‘The Lady From Dubuque’.

  3. Why, thank you! What did you settle on, by the way? duh-booque?

    I was behind someone in the queue at TKTS and they asked for a ticket to see Diana Rigg in “Media”.

    Really, it’s a minefield. Why do playwrights insist on making life so difficult for the punters?

  4. tkts cochon d'inde Says:

    I’m actually on the other side of the glass!

    We’ve been asked for “The Glass Meringue”, “Whiping It Up”, “You Will Rock Me”, “The Vagina Monocles” etc…

    This week our favourite was “Elaine Paige in The Dipsy Soprano, Please”.

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