Mike Bartlett may justly lay claim to being one of the world’s greatest living dramatists. Masterpieces like Cock, Bull and King Charles III demonstrate an extraordinary range and a mastery of language which is constantly upper echelon. Wild is his latest play, an instant masterpiece. Compelling, enigmatic and overwhelmingly provoking, this is a theatrical feast that one misses at one’s peril.
I’m not talking about a small war like the Second World War, I’m talking about a complete and global collapse of every state, every institution. We’re like – that – far away. It’s about to happen. We can’t see it because we’re hiding behind the walls but if you live in Sudan, Kenya, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Greece, Ukraine – you’ve felt literally felt on your skin the effect of this collapse. You know, in a way that we don’t know yet, what is about to happen…No water, electricity, no food, no security, yes no wifi. This isn’t a sort of conspiracy thing, this is real. And it will happen not because it needs to but because we don’t trust anyone. We’ve all lost faith. As the rich get richer, and the politicians become so detached they cannot speak without hypocrisy, as the average experience means increasingly nothing, and resentment grows, when we all believe in nothing and credit, trust, is gone, it will all crumble. In many ways it already has…That’s why I did it. Released all that stuff. Because the only way to stabilise our faith in what we’re doing is to see the contradictions – expose the systems – and discuss and then move towards something we can get behind. Something more fair, more open and transparent. Not authority but real consent.
No, not a post Brexit speech, but the words spoken by Andrew, the Edward Snowden character at the heart of Mike Bartlett’s Wild, now having its premiere season, in a production directed by James Macdonald, at the Hampstead Theatre. Given that Bartlett must have written these words months before the recent referendum, his words are startling and prescient.
Post referendum, the world Andrew describes seems that much closer.
Wild is Mike Bartlett’s riff on what may or may not have happened when Edward Snowden fled to Russia having released thousands of pages of USA documents in the public interest, on one view, or as an act of treason, on another view.
It is superbly written, every word essential, great themes interspersed with mystery, fear and astonishment. Bartlett deals in big issues, fascinating characters, and uses a roller coaster of a narrative to take audiences on an extraordinary ride.
This is a play of shadows, subtext and surprises. Almost nothing is as it first seems to be. Its themes include how we define identity and power and what both mean in the modern wifi age. Is privacy an anachronism now? How and who do we trust, and why?
In the first scene, Andrew is discovered in a hotel room in Moscow. It’s a few days since he has unleashed a cache of highly sensitive documents on the world; a few days since he was eating KFC with his long-term girlfriend, Cindy. He is perturbed, uncertain, frightened.
Jack Farthing plays Andrew with wonderful, complex attractiveness. He comes with the Snowden glamour, but he is also intensely real, utterly believable as a human being who thought he did the right thing and now has no idea what his life will be. His performance dazzles in its simultaneous complexity and simplicity – the audience thinks they know this man, like this man, want this man to survive.
As the play progresses, that point of view comes in for close and pertinent, almost scalpel-like, examination.
A Woman is in the hotel room with Andrew. She is offering him safety, a future – but she won’t say who she is or who she represents. She says her name is Miss George Prism – cue a series of deft The Importance Of Being Earnest jokes which, sad to say, escaped most of the audience around me.
Caoilfhionn Dunne plays the Woman. She is bizarrely irritating and idiosyncratic in this first scene, a really odd character. She gets under Andrew’s skin just as she gets under the audience’s skins. It is difficult to describe her antics, but to say she comes across like a deformed flamingo from The Island of Doctor Moreau is not to understate the position.
The rapier like jousting of words between Andrew and the Woman is handled magnificently by Dunne and Farthing. Both are entirely in their own character space, both are tentatively examining the other’s tenacity and veracity. It’s like watching a battle of telepathic powers. Thrilling and disconcerting all at once.
Farthing plays Andrew cleverly; he seems like a homespun boy next door, but it’s clear he has a mind which whirls and calculates at very high speeds. Nevertheless, he does not come across as powerful – more forlorn.
Dunne’s Woman is much the same, but inverse. She seems powerful, wise and worldly by appearance, but acts like an idiot, or at least someone out of control.
The truth, in both cases, turns out to be somewhat different, although, tantalisingly, that does not become clear until the final scene. When the fog lifts, the horizon is grim indeed, but the joy of getting to that point is comprehensible and satisfying.
After being shaken somewhat by the Woman, Andrew is visited by a Man, who, curiously, also says his name is George.
John Mackay plays the Man with a chilling indifference that sets spines tingling with terror. Quiet and unfunny, he questions and threatens Andrew, all the while smiling and offering chocolate. His polite demeanour contrasts sharply with the intensity of his simple questions and the horrors he anticipates in Andrew’s future if he does not agree to join with his group, a group separate from Ms Prism’s.
As Andrew slowly realises that nothing is as it seems and that neither Woman nor Man can be trusted to be truthful, his veneer cracks. Farthing is devastatingly compelling in the moment when Andrew breaks, and cries desperately for his situation. It’s sombre and dedicated acting of the highest order.
In the third scene, the Woman is back. Andrew, shirtless, is exercising on the floor. There is nothing sexual between the two, despite much chat from her about the possibility, but his shirtlessness distracts her. At first, it just seems he has absent-mindedly forgotten to get dressed having been interrupted, as he has wider, more important topics to press. But…
In this sequence, Andrew tests the Woman, wanting to ensure her trustworthiness. He gets her to agree to physically scar herself. She can fake everything else, her name, her identity, her purpose, her connections – but she can’t fake scarification.
The Woman does as Andrew requests. It’s a truly gruelling scene to endure.
To say anything more would ruin the remarkable revelations and conclusions of the stunning fourth scene. Suffice to say that all three actors show different sides to their characters, tables are turned (more than once) and the audience is left to its own devices to put the pieces of the puzzle into place.
Bartlett writes with such coherence and Macdonald directs with such authority and clarity, that the puzzle can be solved. But it just might be solved differently for every audience member.
Miriam Buether provides a truly magical set design and Peter Mumford’s lighting is masterful.
Wild must be a front runner for the best new play of 2016. The production is a winner on all accounts, some of which can’t be explained or discussed without spoiling the experience for fresh eyes in the audience.
Quite superb in every way and as politically important as any play might be today. Absolutely unmissable, but surely certain to transfer to the West End, and probably Broadway, and garner many awards.
A triumph for the Hampstead Theatre.