Joe Penhall’s new play, Landscape with Weapon, received its world premiere at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre on Thursday last week (5 April 2007, See News, 15 Feb 2007).

The cast features Tom Hollander (last seen on stage in The Hotel in Amsterdam at the Donmar in 2003), Jason Watkins and Green Wing co-stars Julian Rhind-Tutt and Pippa Haywood. To his family’s horror, Ned reveals he’s the brains behind a new military technology. When the Ministry of Defence demands intellectual ownership, Ned starts to question himself. The production reunites director Roger Michell with designer William Dudley and lighting designer Rick Fisher, the creative team from Penhall’s breakthrough play Blue/Orange, which premiered at the NT in 2000.

Overnight critics enjoyed the debate stirred up by Penhall’s political play, and were highly impressed by the performances of the cast, particularly singling out Hollander’s characterisation as a highlight. However, they were unconvinced by several plot contrivances and Penhall’s portrait of a military scientist who seems far too naïve to the potential for exploitation.

  • Michael Coveney on (4 stars) - “Penhall returns to the theatre with a really enthralling dramatised debate about the ethics of inventing new weapons of destruction - masquerading, too, as a heart-felt play about two brothers…. In a way, Penhall picks up on a subject that has been a live issue since Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, where the ethics of an arms manufacturer are judged by the social good his wealth might create…. Penhall also remembers his theatrical duties by writing a sparkling conflict between the brothers which climaxes in a very funny fight over a curry supper…. Hollander is on fine form, charting his physical decline into principled eccentric with a blazing sense of the human values his professional dedication has undermined…. Rhind-Tutt’s slow burn playing and disapproving looks are a joy in a generally well acted show. Roger Michell’s precise and engaging production talks a good talk and is cleverly designed by William Dudley.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) - “While I was intellectually gripped, I didn't find the individual psychology wholly plausible…. What I find hard to swallow is Ned's own early naivety. I accept his argument about the excitement of discovery. But, given that he hails from a progressive family, it is hard to believe that he would not have been aware of the political and military implications of his ultra-precise ‘drone’…. Hollander does everything possible to stifle one's doubts by making Ned a halting, socially awkward figure consumed by his work. It is a beguiling performance. And, in Roger Michell's well-paced production played on a William Dudley-designed traverse stage, there is good support from Julian Rhind-Tutt as his appalled brother, Jason Watkins as the government spook and Pippa Haywood as the commercial director. While I applaud Penhall for exploring the moral maze surrounding new weaponry…. I relished the debate without believing in the character.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (4 stars) – Taylor enjoyed the “flawed but powerful new play” and praised “an immaculately acted, traverse-stage production by Roger Michell that does handsome justice to its lithe intelligence, emotional pain and rueful humour.” He added: “How could someone so intelligent have put so much faith in Intelligence, or have imagined that it was possible to use American engineers on the project without becoming involved with the American military? These doubts are to some degree allayed by the remarkable performance of Hollander. A geeky misfit who by the end has become a lonely, haunted and tragic figure, his excellent Ned convinces you that here is a man who has been too wrapped up in Da Vinci-like dreams of discovery…. The ending is bleakly beautiful.”

  • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph – “Landscape with Weapon strikes me with all the force of a mild disappointment. Centring on one weapons engineer's belated crisis of conscience, and the fall-out from his doubts, it's no dud, but it fails to detonate quite as it ought…. Roger Michell's production… bristles with stylish assurance…. Saddled with these contrivances, the evening hobbles rather than strides towards its Pinteresque conclusion…. The performances are uniformly excellent: Hollander is compellingly child-like as the vulnerable Ned descends into a state of gibbering paranoia, and the dashing Rhind-Tutt expertly taps Dan's brash behaviour for comedy before striking a more anguished note. And Penhall writes with panache. But whereas Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara (1905) advances the still-provocative idea that arms-manufacture and alms-giving are inextricably linked, that peace depends upon war, the audience isn't directly implicated here.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in the Times (3 stars) – “The weapon that gives Joe Penhall’s latest play its title doesn’t seem so fanciful…. If there’s a plausibility problem, it’s with their British inventor, whose crisis of conscience and elevation to the moral high ground comes pretty late in the day for a man who has laboured too hard and enthusiastically to claim political or military innocence…. But such objections are likely to surface only after you’ve seen Roger Michell’s finely acted production. At the time you’re bounced into belief by Tom Hollander’s lead performance, perhaps because he emphasises what’s erratic and childlike in Ned the boffin…. It’s a strong performance, and matched by Haywood, who brings a hockey-captain eagerness to her role in the death industry, and Julian Rhind-Tutt as a brother whose show of principle is undermined by an avarice for money and possessions altogether missing in the muddled, flawed, morally ambivalent Ned.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard – “Joe Penhall requires far too much suspending of disbelief and doubt-swallowing in his adventurous new play…. Roger Michell… presents Penhall's latest play in a dynamically acted traverse production that emphasises its confrontational nature…. A remarkable Tom Hollander conveys such a sense of emotional turmoil and disintegration, as Ned lapses into unshaven lethargy, that Landscape with Weapon becomes more a portrait of the scientist as a poetic, escapist dreamer than a debate about ethics or a world in which weapons are dangerous, big business.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell