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A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY – Southwark Playhouse, London.

a bright room called day, southwark playhouse, london

Photo by Jack Sain

It seems almost unnecessary to criticise Tony Kushner’s insufferable polemic when he does so regularly within the text. Characters rebuke one another for their “bad romantic posturing”, “elegant despair” and “carefully constructed but immobile” existence, with one commenting on the play’s turgid artifice by sighing “I feel like I’m in a film all the time”. If this was done with deliberate, winking irony, it would make for a screamingly funny piece, but humour is just one of many things lacking from this bizarrely empty epic. The aphorism “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce” is solemnly wheeled out to illustrate Kushner’s mission statement – would that we had some of either to liven up this 150-minute undergraduate seminar.

A Bright Room Called Day preceded Kushner’s far more accomplished, heartfelt work, Angels in America, and is inspired by Brecht’s account of the rise of Nazism; Kushner manages to outdo the German master’s overt didacticism, but without the accompanying political incisiveness. His play follows a group of artists in 1930s Berlin, observing the march of fascism and disintegration of a cohesive left-wing response. Our host is Agnes, actress turned devout communist, who lives with Hungarian Trotskyite Husz and regularly hosts salon gatherings with opium-addicted, flapper-styled starlet Paulinka, pragmatic painter and campaigner Gotchling, and flamboyantly homosexual psychologist Baz.

This arch, mannered group offers a running commentary on historical events but remains curiously distanced from them, even in the marginally more action-packed second half; neither they nor their creator can escape the need to both display cleverness and hammer home key points. Thus we are stuck with paper-thin characters – really more authorial projections – self-consciously playing at politics, while somewhere outside, the world descends into madness.

The exposition-heavy naturalism occasionally swerves into fantasy, with a degrees of evil debate getting a strange punctuation when the devil himself makes an appearance, and the point about history repeating massively overstated by irritating ghostly visitations. The tonal shifts jar in Seb Harcombe’s rather plodding production, which offers no stylistic solutions in its literal rending.

Kushner appears to be aiming for a drama of great metaphorical power illuminating his own time, as Miller did with The Crucible, but he won’t trust us to make this connection. Thus we have the most problematic addition: 1980s Long Islander Zillah. This anarchist stereotype mounts her soapbox to bore us with her (or more accurately Kushner’s) doctrine about the parallels between Hitler and Reagan, which might be more convincing were it not sandwiched between bonkers conspiracy theories and the admission that she scrawls daily letters to the President. It’s frustratingly heavy-handed, and dates the play badly.

That’s a shame, as there is some thematic relevance here that would have had greater impact with a different framing device. We’ve witnessed a week of global conflict, chaos and tragedy, and the notion of taking collective responsibility instead of indulging in armchair liberalism is a pointed call to arms. However, for a drama (rather than an editorial) to make us consider these issues with any seriousness, it must first allow us to engage with its characters, and there just isn’t enough development for that to happen, despite the best efforts of this keen, if relatively youthful, cast.

Alana Ramsey does well to suggest a churning hinterland for ponderous Agnes, and her interactions with the shifty communist representatives who want to revise her political skit are the highlight of the evening. The dithering pair is given absurdist life by Elizabeth Andrewatha and Jonathan Leinmuller, although frankly it’s impossible to top Monty Python’s Life of Brian’s depiction of petty revolutionary infighting. 

Ethan Holmes is hamstrung by an eye patch, plus fours and a wildly varying cod accent, yet gives us glimpses of impassioned filmmaker Husz, while Laura Hanna struggles to flesh out the human being beneath the performer veneer of narcissistic Paulinka. Charlotte Jones fully and distractingly commits to a broad New York twang as Zillah, Holly Morgan is believable as brisk Gotchling, Leinmuller savours his devilish cameo, and Charlie Archer as Baz offers moments of poignancy when he’s able to drop the Noël Coward-esque knowing campness.

Sadly, such opportunities are few and far between as the too-short scenes speed past: there is generally only time for one erudite bon mot apiece. Kushner is almost certainly accurate in his observation that moral cowardice can have terrible, far-reaching consequences, but the real lesson here is that elegant inaction makes for exceedingly wearisome drama.

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Reviewed 25/07/14/
By Marianka Swain

23rdJuly – 16th August
Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1.

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