‘Qualms?’ Oh yeah, sure, I have ‘qualms’. Everybody has qualms. But I’ll overcome them.
The play is about an engineer, Ned, who’s developed a way for unmanned planes to not have to rely on GPS, which is about to go into production as a weapon. His brother (a dentist with a sideline in botox) isn’t happy; thinking that weapons are bad and governments can’t be trusted – expressed with all the usual eloquence of a CIF commentator – his wife has left him and his mother isn’t talking to him.
On the other side is the company that’s looking to make a shed load of money from the idea. Their voice in the play Commercial Director, Ross, goes between flattering and mildly threatening Ned when he starts expressing doubts.
In the second half, after Ned has decided not to sign the contract that’ll allow the MoD to control who’ll be able to get the new system (Israel being the main bogeyman) he’s pressured into changing his mind by someone from SIS.
In the first half of the play I thought that the anti-weapons/war argument were going to hold sway, but the play is more complicated than that and after the interval the points being made by the company and the spook had more force.
So while the play certainly doesn’t condone the behaviour of defence contractors or government it points out the commercial and political logic which drives that behaviour, and doesn’t let liberal anti-war sentiment to get away from some of the consequences of that logic.
I’d also say that its not a ranting piece of political theatre, there are a number of genuinely funny moments which the cast (a number of whom were in Green Wing) deliver well.
Its on at the Cottesloe which is a small(ish) theatre where you sit very close to the stage and those of us in the front rows were in danger of being caught up in the fight scenes as water, beer and curry are thrown around. So if you go perhaps you shouldn’t wear your ‘dry clean only’ clothing.
You can see what some of the professional critics thought about the play:
Joe Penhall’s new play is an elegant variation on a familiar topic: the moral responsibility of the scientist. It is given an urgently contemporary feel by reference to Iraq and acknowledges the ethical complexity of the subject. But while I was intellectually gripped, I didn’t find the individual psychology wholly plausible.
Played out on a narrow strip of stage in an atmosphere of escalating anxiety and aggression, Penhall’s four-hander is itself a sturdy piece of engineering. Quite deliberately, it is not ultra-innovative.
Any new play that gives you such engaging debate, as well as detailed discussion of the latest weapons systems and things like “sweat equity” and “royalty pools”, certainly gives the impression of being laudably cutting-edge. The trouble, as so often in contemporary theatre, is the politics. Like Caryl Churchill’s beautifully written but ludicrous Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? last year, the play’s political sensibilities strike you not so much as right or wrong, but as seriously lacking in complexity, maturity and breadth; emerging from a tiny, tiny little world where everybody thinks exactly the same, agrees with each other ardently and credulously reads the same newspaper. It is not a good recipe for political theatre.
A riveting examination of intellectual-property rights is about as unlikely as one about ISDN numbers. But Joe Penhall carries it off in this bitterly funny play in which he sets the aesthetic world of the creator against the harsh realities of politics. It’s a series of debates in which the emotions run as deep as the ideas.
Thinking about it since we saw it some of the flaws in the play are caught pretty well by a number of these reviews. They were things that we came away talking about as much as the bits that are successful (but which I was too polite to put here when first writing about it).
I didn’t believe the flip flopping by Ned as he goes from arguing that his work is something he believes in to wanting to walk away, nor did his breakdown towards the end seem entirely plausible.
But still a play that has you thinking and arguing about it a good few days later can’t be all bad.