THE ROUGH TOUGH BIRTH OF A CITY
It is not often I resort to drawing in the notebook, but there it is: half an hour into the first part of David Hare’s play about the city planner Robert Moses, whose demonic energy built modern New York between the 20’s and the ’60s. I seem to have drawn two stick-men. Danny Webb is Governor Al Smith, a furious little gnome with a cigar leaning back in his chair, defiant with elected authority, and Ralph Fiennes’ Moses faces him: craggy, arms folded, an immovable and stroppy Easter Island statue. The men’s previous bantering, Bourbon-fuelled comradeship is exploding in disagreement, alarming and hilarious at once. (Danny Webb one of the few performers I’ve ever seen who can take your eyes off the granitic Fiennes).
The governor is furious at the planner’s having insouciantly started work on his latest expressway before a sign-off or resolution of a legal challenge. Moses will win this one, as he did over forty years in post: smashing slums and building 670 miles of roads, seven bridges, the Brooklyn tunnel, the airport, the UN, the Shea Stadium, countless towers, playgrounds, pools and parks, a dam. In these first-half battles he is creating a proper road system on Long Island, defying landed plutocrats to open up its beaches for the people.
It is clever of Hare to start us with the visionary populism of the man, a striding, sea-swimming alpha male who confronts a suave Henry Vanderbilt over the right of ordinary New Yorkers to enjoy the open land – “You made your millions out of the kikes and wops in your tenements..”. Henry Ford has invented workers’ holidays and there was this new thing called “leisure”. We see too the almost hypnotized loyalty of Moses’ team , represented in the play by Siobhan Cullen as a lively Finnuala and Samuel Barnett as the more cautious, sometimes dismayed Ariel. There will be hints and revelations as the play goes on that actually the people Moses cares most about are not the very poorest but what modern politics calls the squeezed-middle, ‘hardworking families” with cars. He hated rapid-transit public services and even built the Long Island bridges too low for the buses needed by the carless masses. He was, in many ways, the prophet who made America a dependent automobile nation.
But in that first half, for all his sharp edges he is a hero to relish, and Fiennes gives it everything. If there are moments (the ones without Danny Webb in them) when you wonder about the measured pace director Nick Hytner has set, you find out later that subtly establishing the relationships in that office is significant. For the interval spans thirty years: and by the 50s we find an older, more formally suited boss, still with these two lieutenants, still impatient but no longer an unbeatable magician whose ruthless, straight-line ruler can smash any community in the name of highway logic.
Alisha Bailey has joined the team as Mariah, whose cousins were bulldozered out of the Bronx community, and who pleads the cause of the campaigners against a “sunken highway” bisecting Washington Square Park. Moses’ first-act impetus, so exhilarating, has hardened to stubborn contempt. Cleansing, urban renewal, newness and the car are everything, conservation is “a racket run by women and liberals” and hardly less despicable than Caesar salad (“lettuce coated with slime”.) Even his voice is deeper. This time he is fighting not a few Long Island grandees but a growing and equally self-protective middle-class and Eleanor Roosevelt (“Is there a vexatious case in America that does not have HER support?”). His attitude echoes that of the long-gone Governor Al: people are not reasonable, so “We must advance their interests without taking any notice of their opinions”.
The parallels with a dozen current disputes are irresistible: mass tourism, cars, power stations, class hostility. Fiennes is irresistible, and allowed in the final scenes an edge of vulnerability (for a soft-heart may beat in the toughest political dramatist). I may have to go and watch it all happening again.
Bridgetheatre.co.uk. To 19th June Rating. Five