The Observer

It’s a hard slog, this play, harder than recent, unjustly derided explosions in the Young Vic and the Theatre Upstairs on Mussorgsky and Wallace Shawn’s tragic appetites. But it’s so beautifully directed by Richard Eyre that you’re convinced that, with re-writes, it might make a good film.

It’s topical, to an almost depressing degree. Anna Chancellor plays Fiona Russell, an observer in a West African small country, overseeing the first ever democratic elections. The result is too close to call, and she sets about enlarging the voting constituency in the rural areas in order, in the second ballot, to achieve the result she wants: as if it was any of her business.

That encapsulates the dilemma of liberal intervention in feudal societies. Why should a democratic process be desirable in the first place (because we think so) and then what… you can hear the contempt in Robert Mugabe’s voice from here. The same questions apply to the Middle East, and Iran.

The playwright Matt Charman certainly keeps you guessing, and so does his career thus far with terrific plays about betting on dogs and polygamy in the suburbs; the latter, The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder, proved that he could stretch a good story through a fine theatrical mesh. This play feels more like a screenplay, with a fatal lack of dramatic accumulation.


One good touch is the ironic application of the title: Fiona, the watchdog of democracy, is a subject of surveillance herself, overseen by James Fleet’s minor Foreign Office official who remains fatally peripheral.


The play lacks focus, as Fleet’s supercilious time-server is usurped first by the RSC’s first black monarch, Chuk Iwuji, as a native translator (trying to develop an under-written love affair with Fiona), then an irate village mother (Joy Richardson), as the play’s moral arbiter.

There are television news scenes with Lloyd Hutchinson’s cynical reporter, a showdown between Fiona and a tribunal decrying her “flat pack” democracy ideals, and a “realistic” village episode on a mother and son’s difference of opinion once the son has been physically lacerated.

The play lacks a killer punch, despite a stunningly staged finale where the video of a conference speech is upstaged by its own theatrical “verite”: Anna Chancellor gathers herself to give the final report but we’re left unmoved and pondering what might be on Newsnight tonight.

– Michael Coveney