The Last King of Scotland at the Sheffield Crucible review *****

The Last King of Scotland

Crucible Sheffield, 28th September 2019

The Tourist generally agrees with all those smart people paid to review theatrical productions. That is a) because they now what they are doing, they are experts with experience and should be listened to, rather than some halfwit with his/her half baked opinions on social media, and b) because, and this is a subset of a), those professional opinions will inevitably influence the ever reflexive Tourist even if he waits until after he has seen an entertainment before passing comment.

Sometimes though I just think they are wrong. With The Last King of Scotland being a case in point. To be fair it did get some decent reviews in the local and specialist theatre press but the broadsheets gave it a pasting. And I cannot, for the life of me, see why. The elements of stagecraft used to convey the story were resoundingly successful in my view and any criticism focussed on the characters, most specifically Doctor Nicholas Garrigan, is misplaced. Why the fictional good Scottish doctor ended up tending the monster Idi Amin is an enigma, not answered in Giles Foden’s book, nor in this adaptation from Steve Waters. Is it fear? Is it professional pride? Is it love? We never know and that is exactly why the story is so compelling in my view.

Now I am a big fan of both book and the film 2006 film, directed by Kevin Macdonald, who also oversaw the film of Touching the Void, taken from a very fine book which itself is the current subject of an excellent theatrical make-over courtesy of David Greig. Who in turn is responsible for another current play of a film(s) of a book in the form of Solaris at the Lyric Hammersmith. The screenplay for TLKOS was penned by Jeremy Brock and no less than Peter Morgan, whose sumptuous magnum opus The Crown you may have heard of and is just about to return to our screens complete with its new roster of A list actors. Note that the Tourist and the SO last night took in Lungs at the Old Vic starring the outgoing Queen Liz and Phil the Greek in Claire Foy and Matt Smith. It’s a small world this drama lark.

Anyway the film deservedly earned Forrest Whittaker an Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin Dada Oumee and plenty of praise for the lovely James McAvoy, soon due to grace the London stage in Cyrano. No less than Gillian Anderson and David Oyelowo starred alongside them, but for me the best performance came from Simon McBurney OBE who played Stone, the jaded Foreign Office flunkey who attempts to recruit Garrigan to the British cause as they switch tracks and watch on helplessly as Amin rises to power. I always assume Mr McBurney takes on these film roles to fund his day job as one of the planet’s greatest theatre makers through his company Complicite, but he is never less than compelling even in the likes of Harry Potter or Mission Impossible.

In this stage adaptation however it is hard to take your eyes off Tobi Bamtefa who plays Amin, from the coup in Uganda which overthrew the repressive regime of Milton Obote in 1971 through to his deposal in 1979 and the return of Obote and civil war. Mr Bamtefa was a member of the original Barber Shop Chronicles cast and had a small part in Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network at the NT, as well as a few TV roles, and he is set to join the cast of Inua Ellams’s Three Sisters, set in Nigeria and coming up at the NT. But this was his first major stage opportunity I believe and he grabbed it with both ample hands. The character of the imposing, capricious Amin comes with audience preconceptions, (at least those old enough or interested enough to know something of the history), but, for me, Tobi Bamtefa was utterly convincing. Impossible to take your eyes off him as he turns from briskly comic to bizarrely cruel in an instant. Which is exactly as it should be. The scenes between him and Daniel Portman’s Garrigan were electric, from the early encounter when the doctor fixes Amin’s hand all the way through to full blown bedroom meltdown at the end. Adventure, idealism, influence, fear, fascination, love are all a part of why Garrigan stays long after, morally, he should have escaped. And, like all evil tyrants, Amin exerts a powerful charisma alongside brutal, erratic power. That is the warning from history which the play delivers.

Although the two leads dominate there are strong supporting performances from Akuc Boc as Kay Amin and Joyce Omotola as his other wife Malyam, as well as John Omole as Peter Mbalu-Mukasa, Garrigan’s doctor colleague and Kay’s lover. The scene where Garrigan refuses to perform and abortion for the couple, despite knowing the consequences for them should Amin find out, is riveting. Baker Mukasa plays Jonah Wasswa, the Minister of Health and eventually just about everything else, George Eggay the Archbishop who defies Amin and Hussina Raja is, amongst other roles, Pritti, a Ugandan Asia who takes on Amin at the time of the expulsion. Peter Hamilton Dyer is Perkins the hapless ambassador, Eva-Jane Willis his inhibited wife who rebuffs Garrigan’s advances and Mark Oosterveen plays Stone, here linked to the secret services.

Last King of Scotland aficionados will see that the plot here is much closer to book than film, which latter took a few liberties with Giles Foden’s original events and characters. To be fair, with its fictional TV clips with three recurring journalists (local, UK and US) to provide historical exposition, these events do move on at a fair lick which perhaps overly accelerates Amin’s descent from national saviour into crazed murderer. This, together with Garrigan’s, deliberate, passivity, might frustrate some viewers but it worked for me. Gbolahan Obisesan’s direction, (whose adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s novel The Fisherman is well worth seeing), doesn’t try to resolve this equivocation which makes the central message even more disturbing. It is pretty easy to think that, confronted with such atrocity, we would walk away if we could but, more often that not, the reality is we wouldn’t, instead choosing to become complicit in the horror.

There are plenty of memorable scenes visually, facilitated by Rebecca Brower colourful set and costume designs, Sally Ferguson’s lighting and Donato Wharton’s sound, even if sometimes the spacious Crucible stage swallows up the action. The film’s infamous meat hook scene is here eschewed but the horror is still effectively conveyed with a grisly scene near the end. Theatre cannot of course convey the immensity of such horror but it can, think Macbeth, Titus Andronicus or Richard III, try to get inside the mind of the man who presides over it. The Last King of Scotland doesn’t get anywhere close to this, that would be too much to ask, but as a slice of theatre, and history, with a moral message, this definitely worked.

The Rubenstein Kiss at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

The Rubinstein Kiss

Southwark Playhouse, 9th April 2019

I liked this. A lot. Certainly more than I might have expected given the string of lukewarm reviews. I liked the way the important story was told, the structure, a later generation revisits and is shaped by its shared history, the three believable relationships that lie at the heart of the play, the way director Joe Harmston and designer Sean Cavanagh, (and a punchy contribution on sound from Matthew Bugg), made very effective use of the SP’s larger space, in transverse, to convey changes in time and place and, especially, I liked the committed performances from the cast of seven.

James Phillips’s play is based on the life and, still contested, crimes of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were convicted and executed in 1953, at the height of the Cold War, after spying for the Soviet Union, allegedly having passed secrets about nuclear weapon design secured by Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass. The play disregards the trial itself, focussing instead on the early lives of the Rosenberg’s and Greenglass’s, the interrogation of Julius Rosenberg and, in a constructive framing device, the attempts in later decades to clear their names after the executions.

Katie Eldred (a splendid stage debut performance) plays history teacher Anna Levi who meets lawyer Matthew Rubenstein (a similarly persuasive, if occasionally overly clamorous, Dario Coates) at an exhibition in 1970s NYC where he is staring at an iconic picture. It turns out that this is his parents kissing, (there is a similar image of the actual Rosenbergs, though the above is the most reproduced). I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that Anna and Matthew have a connection beyond the sexual relationship that follows, namely that he is the son of the Rubensteins and that she is the daughter of David Girshfeld (Sean Rigby) and Rachel Liebermann (Eva-Jane Willis). We go back in time to the small apartment where the earnest Jakob Rubenstein (Henry Proffit) and his spirited wife Esther (Ruby Rentall), who gave up a promising singing career, first set up home and bring up Matthew. Having left the army, where he worked in the nuclear bomb testing facilities in Nevada, (at a time when only the US had this technology), David is invited by Jakob to join his electricals business, allowing David and Rachel to also have a child, Anna. We see how Jakob and Esther’s upbringing, a child of the Great Depression, education and Jewish heritage inform their Communist idealism and sympathy for Soviet Russia (as did so many of their class and background did at the time). We also discover how Jakob was fired from his job as an engineer at a New Jersey facility which carried out research on missile systems for the army because of his CP membership.

In a series of flash-forwards, sometimes acted out in parallel, we also see how Jakob refused to renounce those ideals and confess to his crimes of espionage even when facing trial and under interrogation from FBI agent Stephen Cranmer, a man of considerably more complexity than you might expect, required an appropriately nuanced performance from Stephen Billington. And we see how and why David turns against Jakob and Esther, confesses his own involvement and implicates Jakob as the head of a Soviet spy ring. We also return to Anna and Matthew whose relationship is transformed by the revelation of their shared parental history and by Matthew’s involvement in the campaign to clear his parent’s names.

All this seems to follow much of the actual Rosenberg case, though we don’r really get to understand what exactly the Rubensteins, and David, did, nor, convincingly, why. Nor the events that have unfolded in the last couple of decades which point to the guilt of the Rosenbergs and have changed the way in which the cause celebre is viewed, now focussed on whether the punishment was appropriate to the crime. This is more about the relationships at the heart of the events, embellished and re-imagined, and all the better for it. There may well be another play located in the arrest, indictment, (the way the Greenglass’s changed their evidence is much simplified in TRK), trial, conviction and execution but it might not work effectively as drama and would be pretty thorny to grasp. There have certainly been other dramatic treatments of the people behind the facts on stage as well as film, though I can’t vouch for any of them. As an aside Roy Cohn, who later went on to play a leading role in the McCarthy trials and act for the Trump family, was involved in the Rosenberg prosecution case. And, as all good students of theatre will know, his particular brand of amoral, wanker-ism was spectacularly aired in Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America.

So James Phillips has packed a lot into his award winning play which by and large works. This is its first revival following its premiere in 2006 and it is easy to see why Joe Harmston and the Devil You Know company alighted on it. I am happy to forgive Mr Harmston for his hyperbolic comments about its relevance to the “end of days apocalypse of division” we now face. Threats to the enlightened consensus are permanent and democracy always fallible. And, from what I read, there is much to debate around the “rights and wrongs” of the Rosenberg case. But, as drama, this really worked for me. When I fill in one of those stock surveys the major theatres send out to us regular attendees I always tick the “I want to be educated” and “I want to be entertained” boxes. Job done here. On both counts.