Ralph Fiennes in Straight Line Crazy – Bridge Theatre – review

Fiennes shines in David Hare’s play about a strong man

★★★

Ralph Fiennes in Straight Line Crazy at The Bridge Theatre London March 2022
Ralph Fiennes in Straight Line Crazy. Photo: Manuel Harlan

George Bernard Shaw said in his play Man And Superman: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

In Robert Moses, we have the quintessential ‘unreasonable man’. David Hare’s Straight Line Crazy begins in the 1920s when we meet Moses, an authoritarian figure with a vision of how New York State should develop. And, as he said himself, ‘when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat axe.’ Hack he did, running his straight roads through whatever got in the way.

The play is divided into two parts. In the first, we see the appeal of the strong man. He won’t compromise. He gets things done. He is non-partisan, he uses the law. We admire the way he won’t kowtow to politicians or rich elites. Almost by the sheer driving force of his personality, he gets his roads built: long straight roads to carry working class people (what we in the UK call the middle class), newly liberated by cars, to the countryside. He builds parks and pools and beaches for them to enjoy in their newfound leisure time. In many ways, he’s a hero.

In the second act, at the end of his career, we are presented with the case against his single-minded, big project approach to planning.

Ralph Fiennes is a perfect choice as the bombastic, heartless Moses. It is a privilege to watch him perform, as he strides across the floor and often planting himself downstage, isolated from the rest of the cast, eyes staring, speaking in that slightly English way that many American patricians had last century, in his case, stemming from his time at Oxford University. However, he is a one-dimensional character. We never really understand what makes him tick, he never expresses any doubts, any warmth or indeed any feelings.

In some ways, Straight Line Crazy is a history of the twentieth century. The love affair with strong men: the Picasso type of artist or the Mussolini style of politician (who supposedly ‘made the trains run on time’), followed by a reaction in favour of co-operation and collaboration. More recently, there’s been a return of interest in so-called strong leaders who get things done, so the play is timely.

If you’re unfamiliar with New York State, you may find it hard to follow what’s going on. In the first act, Robert Moses, a public official who dominated urban planning from the 1920s to the sixties, is pursuing his first great project: to open up the peninsula of Long Island that juts out to the east of New York City and houses Brooklyn and Queens at its beginning and the Hamptons at the other end- home to some of the richest people in America. He wanted to create not only roads but a public beach.

In the second act, he meets his nemesis when, at the end of his career, he seeks to extend Fifth Avenue through one of the city’s most beloved areas: Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

This first act spends a lot of time establishing Moses’ commanding personality, with some good dialogue but not a lot happening. Some of the best moments come when Moses interacts with Al Smith, the New York State governor from a poor community and a wily politician who smoothed the way for Moses’ early projects. The ever reliable Danny Webb gives Smith a warmth that enables you to see why he was so popular and persuasive.

Like others who know their own mind and are blinkered to other possibilities, Bob Moses can be a monster. From the start, we get hints that there is a dark side to his character. The people around him work for him, not with him. An employee alters a road design on the instruction of Governor Smith. Moses will have none of it. They are not there to have ideas, simply to carry out his vision.

Act Two is the case against Moses. Much more of his unsavoury side is revealed. He doesn’t change, but by the 1950s the world has. People power is growing. Jane Jacobs declares that cities are about people and communities,  talks about the tyranny of the motor car, and has a vision of revived (or gentrified, we might say) urban areas. The writing is on the wall for Moses but he still refuses to consult or compromise.

Bob Crowley’s thrusting set

It looks like David Hare is setting up a battle between Moses and Jacobs, but a clash between two strong leaders would have been counter to the theme of act two. So, although we meet Jacobs, acted with authority and humour by Helen Schlesinger, the play becomes a conflict between Moses and the people (significantly they’re represented by women), a battle between two ages. Speaking for the community is Shirley Hayes, forcefully played by Alana Maria.

So the rise and fall of Moses is interesting but the fundamental problem with the play is that Moses doesn’t change, except to get older. It is fascinating to see Ralph Fiennes change physically from the upright, vigorous young man to the slightly stooped and more ponderous old man. There is none of the guilt and fear that adds depth to the single-mindedness of Solness, the character Mr Fiennes played in Ibsen’s The Master Builder at the Old Vic in 2016 in an adaptation by David Hare.

Production photo of Samuel Barnett in StraighProdcution photo of Smauel Barnett in David Hare's Straight Line Crazy at the Bridge Theatre in London March 2022
Samuel Barnett in Straight Line Crazy. Photo: Manuel Harlan

There are similarities between the two plays but I’m afraid any comparison would be to the detriment of Straight Line Crazy. Unlike Solness, Moses’ downfall doesn’t come from fear or love or other ‘weakness’, but from a much more mundane cause: changing times and his refusal to change. However, by then, he had achieved so much of his vision, his place in history was assured, so it’s hard to have much sympathy.

The play leaves us pondering about strong leadership and people power, asking ourselves which in the end was more beneficial and which more damaging to the city.

Bob Crowley’s set underlines the debate by using a flat runway that goes from the back of the stage and thrusts out into the audience, like one of Moses’ straight roads. Whenever we meet the protesting community, a wall is flown in that symbolically cuts right through the middle of it, at the same time creating a less thrilling but more intimate space.

Siobhan Cullen and Samuel Barnett play Moses’ two assistants, the former extrovert and good humoured, the other more shy and self deprecating, but both, in their defence of him, giving us an insight into why charismatic leaders attract a following. The younger and less compliant generation is represented in the second act by a new employee, played with passion by Alisha Bailey.

Nicholas Hytner directs proceedings, as he seems to do most productions at The Bridge (we can look forward to him directing The Southbury Child in the summer, and John Gabriel Borkman in the autumn). It’s not only his choice of plays that make him missed at the National Theatre where he was once Artistic Director. His direction is unobtrusive and fuss-free: he puts the script and the actors centre stage. Not for him, distracting gimmicks or clutter; and he has the confidence of a modern strong man who doesn’t need the production to be about him.

Straight Line Crazy performs at The Bridge Theatre until 18 June 2022

Click here to watch this review on our YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Click here to read our review of Ralph Fiennes in David Hare’s Beat The Devil

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ralph Fiennes in Beat The Devil – review

Ralph Fiennes mouths David Hare’s righteous anger at Boris Johnson


★★★★

Production shot of Ralph Fiennes in David Hare's play Beat The Devil at the Bridge Theatre in London
Ralph Fiennes in Beat The Devil. Photo: Manuel Harlan

After five months of being deprived of live theatre, I say all hail the Bridge Theatre for being, as far I’m aware, the first to put on an indoor show. How wonderful I thought not only to see Ralph Fiennes in the flesh but also to get away from the pandemic. Except David Hare’s new play Beat The Devil is about the pandemic.

Sir David caught the virus just before the lockdown and was seriously ill with it and, in this monologue through the medium of Ralph Fiennes, he talks about the progress of his illness and in parallel the actions of the government. As the virus went mad so did the government, he says, or words to that effect.

We’re all too familiar with the failings of our leaders in this crisis but it didn’t harm to be reminded of them. And he does tell both stories with righteous anger and a pleasing wit. On the personal level, there’s his puzzled response to finding that his signature dish tastes so much like sewage that he feels he must have made a  mistake in the cooking. Describing the government as ‘mediocre’, he sys, ‘does violence to the word’. Of course, if you feel the government has handled this crisis well or at least no worse than any other government would have done, I realise the polemic may lose some of its impact but it’s still fun.

It greatly helps that the lines trip off Ralph Fiennes‘ tongue so naturally, just as if he is having a conversation with us, albeit a conversation fueled by anger and bemusement. Bunny Christie’s set is admirably simple but effective, being appropriately a desk placed centre stage, which gives Mr Fiennes as the writer something to move round or sit at, under the direction of the incomparable Nicholas Hyntner.

David Hare has been writing plays for fifty years and by comparison with his best- Plenty, Skylight, Pravda, the Absence Of War– this 50 minute memoir may seem slight. It is fair to say that many elements of the public story of the pandemic will be familiar to anyone who follows the news but Sir David’s ability as a writer is undiminished. He can still coin a phrase: ‘it’s a sort of dirty bomb thrown into the body’, or be wryly detached in his descriptions of his illness thereby enabling us to see for ourselves the horror. For that reasons, it’s all the more startling when he lets out his pent up anger. ‘I don’t have survivor’s guilt, I have survivor’s rage,’ he says.

His concludes that what we need is ‘truth’. It seems incredibly potent in its simplicity.

Naturally because he was isolated during his illness, there’s no room for the renewed sense of community that many of us found during lockdown but there is a touching moment of love when he describes how his wife selflessly lay on him to keep him warm.

Photo of Ralph Fiennes facing the audience at the Bridge Theatre at the end of a peformance of David Hare's Beat The Devil
Ralph Fiennes at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

If anyone doubted the need for the Bridge’s precautions, the vivid description of the disease would surely change their mind. Talking of which, I understand that you might still be hesitant to go to an indoor performance but let me tell you, the safety measures taken by the Bridge Theatre were exemplary- from the controlled entrance to the thermal imaging to the one way system, to having to wear a face mask throughout the visit, to the spaced out seats. I felt totally safe. What was interesting was the way the spacing had been managed. The less than one third capacity audience still produced the atmosphere of a much fuller house.

I hope that, in giving this show four stars, I’m not just intoxicated by finally seeing a live performance.  I think not. The proof is, I would happily see it again.

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

I’m Not Running by David Hare with Siân Brooke

David Hare’s new play is contrived, predictable & flat 

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Production shot of Sian Brooke and Alex Hassell in I'm Not Running at National Theatre London
Sian Brooke & Alex Hassell in I’m Not Running. Photo: Mark Douet

When the National Theatre announces a new season, it’s always a challenge to decide which events to spend one’s time and money on. But a new play by one of our greatest living playwrights David Hare starring a fine actor like Siân Brooke and directed by the renowned Neil Armfield seemed a safe bet.

So you can imagine my disappointment when confronted by a contrived plot with a weighted conflict and a predictable end, not to mention an acting performance that offered none of the charisma that the role seemed to require. To be fair to Siân Brooke, it may be the script that was lacking rather than her performance.

Click here to watch the review of I’m Not Running on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

The plot concerns a clash between a doctor who has run a single issue political campaign to save a hospital and subsequently becomes an MP and a career politician with whom she has, shall we say, history. By the way, Alex Hassell as her ‘sparring partner’ gives a bravura performance ranging from tears to tantrums.

The play jumps back and forth between the present day and the events that led up to it. We see the main character developing her political understanding to the point where she is considering running- or not running- for the Labour Party leadership.

A big auditorium but not a major play

David Hare tries to help our political understanding too. So we learn how the personal and the political are connected, and how we need political parties, in this case the Labour Party, if you seriously want to change things. At Westminster, the play says, we need less towing the party line, less putting efficiency before people and less male ego, and conversely more passion, more belief, more women.

Sian Brooke & Liza Sadovy in I'm Not Running
Sian Brooke & Liza Sadovy in I’m Not Running. Photo: Mark Douet

The play takes its time and, if you’re not interested in politics, you may find it dull- although there are some juicy confrontations between the two main characters. The problem for me is, the arguments always seem one sided, so the excitement never mounts. Far from being carried along to the climax, I had plenty of time to consider how unlikely the ending is.

Although the play is about politics, there are no big speeches. It is an intimate play consisting almost entirely of conversations between two people in small rooms. The Lyttleton stage is too big for it. Ralph Myers’ set comprises a simple triangular white room which spins round nicely to frame the action but the large auditorium seems to create performances that are a bit more shouty than they should be.

Last year I saw both Labour Of Love and This House by James Graham, both about Labour Party politics. I was far more affected by his portrayal of impassioned but flawed people who believe in their cause and understand the need to compromise and work together for change in a democratic system than by David Hare’s fantasy world.

I’m Not Running is performing at the National Theatre until 31 January. There will be an NT Live broadcast of the final performance.

Watch below to see the YouTube review of I’m Not Running on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel