Looking through the program to The Handyman before the curtain goes up, it’s near impossible not to be impressed. An Oscar winning writer (Ronald Harwood), a highly respected director (Joe Harmston) and several very well-known actors (Timothy West, Vanessa Redgrave, Steven Berkoff, Adrian Lukis). The calibre of those involved was clear from the off: Harwood’s observation of the upper-middle class couple was pitch-perfect, whilst West’s Kozachenko (the handyman) was extremely convincing. All the elements were there. How odd, then, to walk away from the performance feeling completely flat.
The drama centres around the handyman himself, accused of war crimes committed fifty years previously. Central too are the couple who have employed him and treated him as one of the family in the intervening years. The plot seems to be not about the man or his supposed crimes, but operates at a remove throughout. Much of the focus is on the couple: we see their emotional reaction and collapse following the accusation. They are wittily observed and often bitingly satiric, but it is difficult to feel any kind of sympathies for them even in these circumstances. Drama of atrocity makes for a very uncomfortable bed-fellow with the almost Noel Coward-like class-conscious satire.
Moreover, the tendency to piggyback the kind of issues more readily associated with these character types (marital problems, gender imbalance, money) along with their general unhappiness at the revelation means they can’t help but look completely petty when contrasted with the harrowing first-hand accounts of the slaughter of innocents. The audience is left, then, feeling that they would be equally as small minded were they affected by these problems, and yet it is nearly impossible to engage with what might have been the emotional crux of the play. Other than one brief chilling turn by Steven Berkoff and a moving one by Vanessa Redgrave as witnesses to the crime, the reaction to the crime itself, not just its revelation, is never dealt with.
If the intention was to show the impossibility of comprehending the horror of these events from our own comfortable lives, then it seems to have been achieved. Nonetheless the effect is an odd one. So many issues are raised in such a short space of time that there’s never any real chance to deal with any of them. For the actors themselves, this unfortunately means that despite some finely-tuned performances there is never any real chance for them to grab our attention or to connect with the audience on any meaningful level.