In the lead-up to the real contest between Barack Obama and John McCain in November, Shinn’s new play explores the tension between liberalism and fundamentalism in American politics. On election night, things are looking rosy for the Democratic party. But as the likely President-elect (Marsh), his wife, advisors and 20-year-old son watch the results roll in, controversial photos of John Jr (Redmayne) are gathering momentum on the internet and the press team are working on damage limitation. Father and son must reach an agreement.
After opening to critical acclaim on 11 September (See Review Round-up, 15 Sep 2008), the production has extended its limited season by a fortnight and is now running until 1 November, just before the actual US election on 4 November (See News, 19 Sep 2008).
American dramatist Christopher Shinn has had four previous plays staged at the Court: Four, Where Do We Live, Other People and, most recently, 2006’s Dying City, which was this year nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in the US. Also in the Now or Later cast are: Domhnall Gleeson, Adam James and Nancy Crane. The production is designed by Hildegard Bechtler, with lighting by Charles Balfour and sound by Ian Dickinson.
Wednesday night’s discussion took place in the theatre immediately after the performance and was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …
On how the play came about
Dominic Cooke: Christopher and I started with a conversation about power and powerful people, and I said I was very interested in plays about power. The dramatic possibilities of those plays were really major because if anyone makes a decision on stage the outcomes of that can be huge. Christopher became very interested in the split in America between fundamentalism and liberalism and how there’s no real consensus in American society now; the debate has been completely split on those lines. As the election loomed, we had lots and lots of conversations. Every time I went to New York we’d meet to talk, and he started talking a lot about the election and all of those ideas then came together when he wrote the play. He wrote a first draft and I gave feedback, he refined it, and that was the play that we did…
On the timing of the play
Cooke: It’s such great timing for this play. Obviously we knew the election date a long time ago, and it was absolutely intentional to stage it now. We have just announced an extension which will take us up until the eve of the election. I don’t know if we will be having a party, we’ll have to think about, it depends on what happens.
Eddie Redmayne: For us it was wonderful having Chris in the rehearsal room. In lunch breaks, he would go off to the internet cafés in Ravenscourt Park and see exactly what was happening at the various party conferences and he would tweak words here and there. People were asking if he was changing big chunks but he wasn’t. It was just specific words to add detail. What was extraordinary for us was that, as everything unfurled - particularly with Sarah Palin and all of that - everything seemed to relate to the play, which was wonderful and it also made us massively engaged with what was going on over there.
Pamela Nomvete: I don’t think I would have followed the election so closely if I hadn’t been in this play. I would have been interested to a certain extent because it’s such a historical election and it’s extraordinary. So I would have watched closer than I normally do, but I think the play definitely added to that. It was great because, as the pressure was rising in the election, it was also rising with us.
Redmayne: I also think Christopher has written a play that deals with the issues it raises in quite a timeless way. Because it’s so pertinent at this moment in history, it makes it resonate, but I believe strongly that this play stands completely by itself.
Cooke: I’d love to see this play in America. We tried to get it on there in the run up to the election too but it didn’t happen … This election is critical to the future of all of us. If you’ve potentially got somebody in the White House who doesn’t believe that global warming was created by man, we’re all going to have to pay for that. We need to get these issues and the story out there so I think the play will exist way beyond the election.
On the personal vs political
Redmayne: When I read this script, what astounded me was that it was a gripping read which, for someone who doesn’t know a huge lot about politics, is amazing. My entire knowledge of politics comes from The West Wing. I was particularly gripped by the fact that he manages to weave a really personal story into this incredibly well argued play. I was also pretty lucky to be at university with a couple of politicians’ kids who have not been through anything as extreme as this, but they did go through specific things.
Matthew Marsh: The thing about the Sarah Palin development was that we suddenly realised how much of a domestic drama her family were having when stuff came out about her daughter’s pregnancy. All that family drama sort of pointed out how on the button Chris’ awareness of the personal being part of the political arena is.
Redmayne: I think it’s different for royalty, where your parents have also been through what you are having to go through. Politics is different because it’s to do with ambition and it’s your parents’ choice. What I find interesting about my part is that, the more he gets backed into a corner, the more his hackles come up and he ends up arguing more passionately than he perhaps would have normally. I absolutely associate and relate to that because I’m bad at arguing.
Cooke: The real core dynamic in the play is the feelings the son has towards his father. It’s based on Oedipus and it’s really driven by that. It’s got a Greek play structure. Some people say this play is too short, but Oedipus is only about three minutes longer. Greek plays are short. So for me the arguments exist on the surface of the play. Any psychoanalyst would say that what the son has done is designed to destroy his father on some unconscious level, because he needs to be noticed by his father who has made a commitment to look out for his son. The reason people have to keep coming to the son with press statements and asking for his approval is because the family have made a commitment to their son and they’re terrified of him killing himself…
I think that, at its core, the play really deals with that family commitment and of course the political dimension is crucial. It was extraordinary when the psychoanalyst came having read the play and written a 20-page essay analysing the characters and what they’re thinking. He said that, when the son flips his jeep over while drunk, it’s a subconscious attack on himself and therefore an attack on his father. The whole thing about John dressing up as Mohammed was read as a second subconscious attack on his parents. It was really interesting to think that he’s always attacking his dad on different levels without necessarily knowing it. I think that dimension strengthens the play.
On research & rehearsals
Cooke: I did a lot of research about this play and I talked to a lot of people who were involved in the political process here and in the US. One of the most interesting people was Howard Wolfson, the communications spokesperson for Hillary Clinton. I was very lucky because he was in London, and he managed to come into the rehearsal room which was really instructive … We told him about the scenario of the play and he wrote a press release about it in about ten seconds.
Redmayne: It was extraordinary.
Cooke: Some of us met Cherie Blair before rehearsals as well. She was quite open about the pressures of being in political power and having a family at the same time.
Marsh: She came and saw the play last week with her son Euan Blair and they seemed to really enjoy it.
Redmayne: Interestingly, he came with his mate who had been with him for various elections and he said he felt like he recognised the scene.
Marsh: Didn’t he actually say that at one point they did hide in a cupboard?
On being presidential
Marsh: I don’t know where I found the character of the president. I find these questions very, very difficult to answer. I mean, the simple answer is that it’s in the script. I suppose the other thing is that directors often say that casting is one of the most important things they do. So presumably when I auditioned for Dominic, he saw something in my first reading of the play which he thought was good to move towards. I honestly don’t feel that I made many conscious decisions about being presidential because the scene is primarily a father-son scene. I have to confess that I am an American politics nerd, and at the age of 16 I started reading the great 500-page books about the American presidential elections called The Making of the President. So I’ve always been interested in following the elections.
On the title of the play
Redmayne: I did ask Christopher Shinn and he did give me an answer, but I’ve completely forgotten what it was. I’m useful in these Q&As, aren’t I?!
Cooke: I thought perhaps Shinn was being slightly superstitious. As though the Democrats might get elected in this election but maybe not, it may be in the next one.
Nomvete: Somebody who came to see it said that, when he was observing the scene between the father and the son, he thought that it was the same person who is talking to himself. He suggested that for him that’s what Now or Later was about. You can accept now that you’re going to turn into this man later.
Marsh: Chris also said that the play was rebuffed by three or four theatres in New York. His take on that was that the theatrical world in New York is very liberal and they want to get rid of Bush. This play basically says that if you get rid of Bush, suddenly the world isn’t going to transform into a wonderful place. A Democratic president is still going to be facing terrible things. So I think that is what Now or Later means for me. In this country we all think, “oh George Bush, he is terrible”, and that enables us not to look at the problems that the world is facing because we have a bogey man. We can just say, “oh as soon as we get rid of him, everything’s going to be groovy”. But it won’t be.
On varying reactions to the play
Marsh: I haven’t really had any reaction from the Islamic communities, have you?
Redmayne: No, we haven’t. What I love about the play is that there are moments when I find some of the things I have to say incredibly difficult, but there is always a balance which is partly why Christopher is so clever.
Marsh: One of the critics, Nicholas de Jongh … said the problem with the play is that there are so many problems and none of them are resolved. That’s what attracted me to the play and probably a lot of you as well. Somebody said that the play is like a little bomb or a grenade that you throw. We just know from talking to people after they’ve seen it that people are still talking about this play an hour after they’ve left and some of them are talking about it the next day. That’s what’s so wonderful about it. It prods people to debate and talk about lots of different issues.
Nomvete: This show has so many things going on that you will end up walking away with different ideas of what it’s about to the people you saw it with.
Marsh: There’s also the thing about the role of the media and the internet and the fact that nothing is a private act now if you’re in any way in the public eye. People in this country spend their whole time saying politicians are terrible because they just spin all the time, but they’re in a media circus which picks up on every statement and then every time you pull a funny face its repeated. The media has completely transformed our political processes, and people are still trying to find out how to function within the new technological world that we scrutinise these people with.
Nomvete: I wouldn’t say I changed any of my views while doing this play as such, but it did make me think deeper about the dynamics in the world altogether, about prejudice and how we come to one conclusion about things when there are so many different perspectives. For me what was interesting was looking at America. I had to look at it differently and suddenly my opinion of America changed. I thought about the dynamic of that country and the fact that is a very young country … and it’s extraordinary what they have achieved in that short space of time.
On American drama at the Royal Court
Cooke: We have had a run of programming from American playwrights at the Royal Court including Bruce Norris’ The Pain and the Itch (and, following Now or Later, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!). You just have to be sensitive when you’re programming to where the waves of energy and the exciting writing are coming from. There are a lot of really good plays coming out of the United States at the moment. I don’t know why that is. It might be to do with eight years of Bush and people feeling very motivated to respond to what’s happening in the country. It is noticeable though. I’m just responding to where the best plays are coming from at the moment…
I don’t know if Londoners would be more interested in this play if it was about a UK election. I think there are two answers to that. The first one is that it’s clearer than ever now that everything that happens in America has a massive effect on the UK - you only need to look at the economy. The link between the two countries is so close now. So I think the US election matters hugely, almost as much as the general election in this country. We need to be very concerned about what’s going on over there. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that what the play’s talking about is how liberals respond to religious fundamentalists, which is definitely an issue in both countries. Apart from all of that, the father-son relationship is the core that really drives the play. So it partly connects with us, but it also connects us to what is going on in the States…
Christopher Shinn was about 22 when he did a play called Four which was performed at the Young Writers’ Festival here at the Royal Court and then he did a play, which I directed, called Other People and then he wrote a play with the same characters in 2001 called Where Do We Live. He also wrote a play called Dying City which was here two years ago. But he’s also had other plays on in other theatres. He had a play on at Soho Theatre and then he’s had a lot of plays in the States so he’s written quite a lot. They’re always about frontiers between the personal and political. He’s never written a play set in the political world before, but they’ve always been dealing with those fault lines.
- by Kate Jackson