“Laugh, you bastard, laugh. Don’t cry – they’ve won then.”
In the world of up-and-coming directors, Blanche McIntyre has rightly been gaining a lot of plaudits for her work at the Finborough and beyond, but to my mind Jessica Swale is right up there with her. With her Red Handed Theatre Company, she’s been building up a diverse body of work, whether turning her hand to reinvigorating classics like The Rivals and The Belle’s Stratagem with a sparkling fresh modernity, or lending a clear-sighted intensity to modern plays such as Palace of the End, which genuinely has to rank as one of the best productions I have seen in recent years. Her latest production for the Southwark Playhouse fits into the second of these categories as it is a revival of Frank McGuinness’ 1992 hostage drama Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.
The set-up is simple, an intense three-hander which follows the experiences of an American and an Irishman being held hostage in Lebanon, and then later an Englishman, as they while away the hours and days trying to keep their spirits up yet dogged by the horrendous uncertainty of how close they are to death. Mainly they do this through humour and flights of fancy of the imagination – re-enacting Virginia Wade playing at Wimbledon, picking their Desert Island Discs, introducing each other to their favourite drinks from the cocktail bar, impersonating rabbits, the Queen and telling some cracking jokes. But this enforced bonhomie can only distract them from the reality of the situation for so long and fractiousness frequently raises its head alongside the despair they’re all trying to hide.
Swale’s direction keeps things powerfully simple, focusing on what really matters. Using Simon Kenny’s design to narrow down the playing space and keeping the extraneous detail around the set to a minimum, we’re left in no doubt that all these men have left is each other and the power of story-telling. And the dynamics of the relationship that develop are just gorgeously, poignantly portrayed. Robin Soans’ dignified Michael is blessed with the most resilient of spirits and reveals the tenderest of natures that makes his predicament a truly devastating final blow; likewise the crumbling of Joseph Timm’s sweet, reserved, fragile Adam becomes almost too heart-achingly difficult to watch.
But it was Billy Carter’s Edward who really stole the show for me. His garrulous Irishman falls in the middle of the trio in age and so the connections he builds up seem to be more intense, more complex, infinitely more moving. His emotional volatility is often the cause of tension but it also intensifies his relationships, one can actually feel the strong love that Edward develops for Adam and then Edward and the sense that he would take it as far as it could go, even as a married father of three. The exploration of male love is also beautifully carried through the investigations of a number of father-son relationships, one of the most moving sections of the whole play. Soans is very good here too, but Carter is exceptional throughout, somehow capturing strength and frailty simultaneously, and reduced me to tears more than once, particularly during the Peter Pan-like imagined journey home.
I was surprised that a blogging colleague described the play as dated as in and of itself, I believed that the play really did feel timeless and not particularly anchored to the Lebanese hostage crisis of the late 1980s from which it took direct inspiration. Rather, the politics are left well alone, the kidnappers a faceless enemy here and so to me this cell could have been anywhere: Iraq a few years back, contemporary Afghanistan, a Somali pirate ship, even Guantánamo Bay. What endures in McGuinness’ play and perfectly illuminated in Swale’s production, is the human spirit and its strength, combined with the capacity that love has, in whatever form it takes, carry us through even the darkest of times. Highly recommended.