BEHIND THE PALACE WALLS: A CHILLING MODERNITY
Peter McKintosh designs cold, skilful dictator chic: above a shining marble floor, the majestic Mittel-Europa chandelier dims to a blood-red aurora or to surveillance-camera pinpoints. A wide dark window looms beyond two silver-gilt audience chairs. We are in a Presidential Palace anywhere on the grim modern globe. The Leader himself is never seen; we watch, in fragmented, fugal snap-scenes, four women waiting for him through a long afternoon and evening. Outside, a denied revolution is brewing beyond the river as the despised “Northerners” take revenge.
Trapped in the arid magnificence of the great room, the women do not invariably understand one another’s language and often speak their thoughts and memories to us, or to themselves. At first Abi Morgan’s jerky structure, repeated lines and flashback variations of dialogue jarred, but I should have trusted the Donmar and director Robert Hastie. Because that early discomfort rapidly becomes part of the necessary experience, echoing and amplifying the dreadfulness of such a milieu. It makes an intense 95-minutes into one of the creepiest and most accomplished new plays of the year.
A smooth, scornful Western photojournalist (Genevieve O’Reilly), has come to take a picture of the dictator. His wife Micheleine or Misha plays hostess: a Pradafied figure in zebraskin stilettos and piled coiffure . With her over the chilli-vodka shots — we eventually learn why – is a drab depressed friend Genevieve (Michelle Fairley). Her late husband painted a picture on the wall, described by the various viewers looking at us through its imaginary expanse in terms which become ever more significant.
The fourth woman, the journalist’s interpreter , is Zawe Ashton, shabby in ankle-boots and market-stall skirt, mistranslating, beadily observing, and artfully pinching glassware and videos at every opportunity. With her dark quirky look like an elf gone to the bad, Ashton creates a frighteningly recognizable evocation of what can happen to denizens of a crushed land: a creature sly, desperate, ignoble, mendacious, denying her own tribal roots, enviously hating and desiring both the splendour of Micheleine’s world and the chill sophisticated freedom of the journalist’s.
But at the heart of it, in a performance which should whisk her straight onto a Best Actress shortlist, is Cusack as the wife: an Imelda, Asma, Elena Ceaucescu or Mirjana Milosevic. All brittle poise from eyebrows and aubergine nails to marble-clattering heels, Madame moves between smalltalk and sentiment, dry observation (not least of the interpreter’s light fingers) to brief naked despair and a final strange nobility of resignation as to what will happen when rougher boots mount the Palace stairs. O’Reilly, impatient and dismissive in her neat trousers-and-waistcoat, gives the sarcastic, brittle professionalism of the journalist; and Fairley rises from quiet mousy beginnings to evoke exactly how it is when you live smilingly alongside lies. “Thirty-five years is a long time to despise your best friend”.
The gradual unpeeling of who they are, what they have seen and betrayed, holds you tense and scared. Outside are hints of fleeing and firestorms, gunfire and looting; inside dark histories and rotting compromises. And who is not a parasite? The wife, once a lovelorn girl, who forgives her master all horrors? The needy greedy interpreter? The best-friend who learned to ignore the fate of her husband and court power? Or the journalist heading back to her clean white sheets and contact-sheets of award-winning atrocity shots? Nobody is clean. All, in moments of spoken honesty, are to be pitied.