David Hare

Straight Line Crazy

26/05/22

National Theatre Live, The Cameo, Edinburgh

The NT Live broadcasts are a wonderful innovation, an opportunity for viewers across the country to watch live performances beamed direct from the stages of London. We’ve seen some excellent productions in this way and, on paper, Straight Line Crazy sounds really promising. A new offering direct from the Bridge Theatre, written by David Hare, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Ralph Fiennes. What can go wrong?

Well, plenty, as it happens. ‘Show, don’t tell’ may be something of a cliché, but these are the three words that are repeatedly drummed into every writer of fiction from the word go. So how has somebody as seasoned as Hare managed to create a play that tells us next to nothing but shows us even less?

The play’s first act is set in 1926, and influential urban planner, Robert Moses (Fines) is working to push through his plans for Long Island, where the various roads and bridges he envisions will allow the masses to travel to what have previously been exclusive beaches. To this end, he has enlisted the likeable Governer Al Smith (Danny Webb), and their resulting banter is overseen by Moses’ employees, Finnuala Connell (Siobhán Cullen) and Ariel Porter (Samuel Barnett). The two men bluster amiably over glasses of bootleg whisky but we learn precious little about them, other than the fact that Moses is prepared to bend the rules in order to see his concept through.

The second act is set thirty years later, when the tide of popular opinion is beginning to turn against Moses. Here at least, the action is opened up beyond Moses’ headquarters, to a public meeting where people have the opportunity to speak out against his single-minded obsession with offering Manhattan up to the dominance of the motor car – but once again we learn very little and, all too soon, we’re back to Moses’ office for more bluster.

And that’s pretty much what you get. Fiennes, to his credit, is a terrific actor, and of course he does his best to imbue Moses with some depth, but we’re reliant on Connell’s character to occasionally step in and tell us key facts about the man – in some cases to actually remind him about things he must already know. It’s all curiously inert and unengaging and, by the play’s conclusion, which points out that Moses is still set in his ways and not about to change anytime soon, I’m left with the conviction that there must be a better story in there somewhere.

Straight Line Crazy might just as well be a radio play – and it doesn’t help that I’m fresh from seeing Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights, an endlessly inventive adaptation that seems to rejoice in finding fresh ways to show an over-familiar narrative. This seems to be its polar opposite, masking rather than illuminating a potentially interesting character.

File this one under D for ‘disappointing.’

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Denial

02/02/17

You’d be hard put to find a worthier subject than that depicted in Denial. It’s based around the true story of American historian, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who, in the late 90s, was sued for defamation by author, David Irving (a slimmed-down and eerily repellant, Timothy Spall), after she dismissed his ramblings in print as the work of  a ‘holocaust denier.’ An admitted lifelong Hitler obsessive, Irving repeatedly maintained that there was no real proof that the Nazis carried out genocide on the Jewish people during the Second World War, and that Jews had simply fabricated the idea in order to obtain reparation from the Germans after the conflict was over.

The trial is played out in London and Lipstadt is horrified to discover that, because of the peculiarities of British law, it is not for her to prove that Irving is wrong, but rather that she is correct in insisting that the Holocaust actually took place. To lose the case would be unthinkable. Her solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), is insistent that Lipstadt will not be allowed to take the stand, and neither, for that matter, will any Jewish survivors, who will run the risk of being publicly humiliated by Irving. Just to make things even more difficult, Julius decides that the case  should be deliberated not by a jury, but by a single high court Judge.

This is, of course, what actually happened, so we can hardly take umbrage with the particulars of the case – but, in terms of a screenplay, it makes it very hard for playwright David Hare to generate any sense of the actual drama. Lipstadt is forced to sit throughout the proceedings in frustrated silence while barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) conducts the case on her behalf. The result is, I’m afraid, a curiously unaffecting film, one that fails to engage an audience as much as it needs to. Even the scenes shot in modern day Auschwitz seem somehow perfunctory and lacking in emotional depth. And of course, since we all know the outcome of the case, there’s no real suspense here, either.

This is a shame because on nearly every other level the film is nicely done. There are strong performances from an excellent cast, it is decently shot and Irving’s famous interview with Jeremy Paxman is cleverly reenacted. But I have to say, worthy though the subject undoubtedly is, this doesn’t have the kind of impact it could.

3.6 stars 

Philip Caveney