Political theatre, they say, is rampant at the moment. Always trust wars and conflict for bringing out the best in artists. Not that Tim Robbins would recognise that sentence. Film star one moment, he's been royally blasted for daring to put on stage his Americanised, 21st-century form of political theatre. `Naïve', `didactic', `preaching to the converted' – he's had the lot thrown at him.
Well, for anybody who still likes a taste of the `other', a touch of the commitments, Embedded won't be an entire waste of time – even if, at £25, Riverside has virtually closed the door on reaching the kind of people who might find their hearts and minds changed by it. A shame, a wasted opportunity.
But, if for nothing else, Embedded, a typical piece of American agit-prop performed by Robbins LA-based Actors' Gang company, is going to make fascinating comparison with Stuff Happens (opening at the National tonight, 10 September 2004), David Hare's UK take on Team GB's Iraqi adventure.
Back in the Seventies, in response to Vietnam, American theatre was filled with companies doing similarly brash, high octane, charged satires on their country's misguided south-east Asian enterprise. Then it was against communism. This time? World domination perhaps?
Robbins doesn't make his target entirely clear. Oil hardly figures. Instead his is a rather amorphous, though hugely enjoyable attack on the Leo Strauss `neo-con' policy-makers. Paraded like so many gloating gargoyles in comedia buffo masks, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Perle and the rest are sent up as a delicious blend of the fanatical and deluded. Laughable and terrifying.
Interspersed, we get somewhat surprisingly sentimental scenes showing us the humanity and distress of the ordinary American soldier - basically good Dads and husbands - required to do dirty work overseas (even when mistakenly shooting civilians at checkpoints). Journalistic compromise, supposedly the raison d'etre of Embedded, is given comparatively short shrift – though, in its relationship to the `saving Jessica Lynch' episode, here restyled as Jen Jen Ryan, we do get a little of its travesty and shocking consequences. It could have been so much darker.
Still, I warmed to Robbins’ play. The wraparound music – from “Redemption Song” to Dylan via Springsteen-ish anti-war rock 'n’ roll – does approach barrage level, but it’s a reminder of America's long tradition of anti-government activism. It's also great to be reminded of that specific style of American acting energy, with V J Foster's gravelled-voiced, haranguing Colonel Hardchannel, military trainer and censor-in-chief of the `embedded' journalists, an exemplar - at once snarling, risible and dangerous.
- Carole Woddis