Returning from the opening night of A Few Good Men, I am in something of a daze. My head is reeling with consideration of what I have just seen: thank you and damn you Tim Hoare – how on earth am I going to write my essay now?
Opening on the same day that the US sees a remarkable victory for Barack Obama, we, in Oxford, are faced with Sorkin’s deeply searching play about the nature of truth, justice, and honour. An apt evening to premiere, to be sure.
The show opens as a dazzling searchlight sweeps across the audience, and an escape siren rings through the air. As the beam catches my eyes, I feel exposed, open, and judged: an excellent evocation of the emotions of the accused, Downey and Dawson. They march on stage, and are silhouetted against the light, before reciting, machine-like, the catalogue of crimes with which they are charged. The sheer, immediate coldness of the action is alarming and destabilising. Indeed, the production is similarly so.
Lili Carr’s set design deserves excessive praise. It is rare that such ambitious staging works so smoothly and effectively, but in this instance it does.
Foregrounding the office and courtroom scenes, the design incorporates a secondary area representing Guantanamo Bay behind fine gauze at the back of the stage. A central watch tower is manned continually by a solitary marine, rifle in hand: a distinct and alarming presence, reminding the audience of the “walls” which protect the “blanket of freedom” under which we all lie. Barbed wire bedecks the borders of the base, from behind which is dragged Seb Peel’s writhing Pfc Santiago for a brutal torture scene.
The costumes are excellent, the lighting is innovative, and the blocking is economic but evocative. In brief, it is spectacularly staged. Sound is used sparingly but efficiently. During occasional scene changes, the eerie tones of a marine marching song ring through the audience, strangely beautiful and alarmingly disconcerting.
But onto performances. I struggle to find fault with any of the leads; I do but wish that I was able to dedicate a paragraph to each. It is rare to observe British productions of American plays which do not draw attention to their artificiality by appallingly bad attempts at Americanisms, or recourse to cheesy and comic emotion, but it is a remarkable treat when effectively achieved, as in A Few Good Men.
The interplay between Archie Davies’ Downey and Matt Orton’s Dawson was beautifully orchestrated and immensely touching; the moment at which a bemused Downey, victim of the prosecution’s searching questions, cannot understand the question until it is barked at him in marine language by a frustrated Dawson was heart-rending and carried a strange sense of intimacy.
Jessep, played by Vic Putz, was truly exceptional. Simultaneously exuding charm and danger, he gave a nuanced performance, complete with sick comedy, violence, and a mesmerising stage presence. I found it almost impossible to reconcile the twisted logic of his moral code with the pertinent points he made regarding individual and collective liberty: he elucidated the primary themes of the play with ease.
The highlight, however, was the tripartite relationship between the lawyers, LDCR Jo Galloway (Tor Lupton), LTJG Sam Wienberg (Charlie Reston) and LTJG Daniel Kaffee (Sam Caird). Although initially slightly weak, within minutes, the dynamics developed into a pertinent examination of human interaction, the innate sense of justice, and the contradictions latent in necessary and desired behaviour. Competitive and harmonic by turns, the rapport between the figures was entirely and complexly believable, a treat for the observer.
Technically, I can happily applaud the efforts of the entire cast. Special mention must go to Tor Lupton, Sam Caird, Charlie Reston, and Tom Palmer, whose performance abilities facilitated the creation of remarkably realistic, truthful characters. I am acutely aware of the literal showering of praise I am giving here, but I cannot stress strongly enough that it is truly deserved. Excellent vocal projection, well-managed accents, stunning physical presence, and most significantly depth and sincerity of emotion, combined to ensure exceptional performances in all cases.
Stand-out performances aside, there were some weaknesses. Scene changes were variable – at moments so slick it was a pleasure to find one’s attention flicking from short scene to short scene with the simple movement of Kaffee across the stage, but at others messy, confused and bumbling. The directors would do well to hone the transitions between the court room and evening scenes in the second half, which undermined an otherwise smooth plot progression. Posture was also an issue for several of the characters, who were markedly slouched in comparison to the rigidity of figures such as Downey.
The show was long, exceptionally so, even for the Playhouse. And yet, in over two hours, I was not bored or distracted once. The ability of this outstanding cast to maintain such focus, such intensity, and such clear engagement for the duration of the performance is beyond laudable. What I recall as I write now, though, is no single performance, isolated from the rest, but the absolute dislocating power of the play as a whole. Working seamlessly as an ensemble, the cast and crew have created a production of a calibre rarely seen amongst professional, let alone student theatre. The ‘marine code’ which shatters the comfortable atmosphere of the audience – ‘UNIT, CORPS, GOD, COUNTRY’- still rings in my ears as I write this, a suitable testament to the degree to which I feel moved, interrogated and affected by this production. The sheer courage, sincerity, and quality of student theatre never fails to amaze and to impress me. A job very, very, well done. You would be mad to miss this.