By Red Stitch Actors Theatre.
Farragut North follows a pretty basic story: guy gets greedy, brings about own downfall. Universe also has it in for him a bit. I think this is what we call Tragedy. It’s what dominates narrative-based theatre and I was thinking about how we really are still beholden to the old comedy and tragedy models of narrative when it comes to theatre. Either people have differences and then get over them, or someone gets done over by their own hubris. Is that all we’ve got?
It’s sometimes noted that US politics is entertainment. This goes beyond the movie stars who move into politics – the whole political realm is a form of spectacle with all the glamour and artificiality that suggests. This can be dangerous, I think. When people wrote off George Bush as a stock character (the bumbling buffoon) they diverted attention from the very real power he wielded. But it’s also what makes it so difficult to pull off great fictions based on US politics: the reality is already a fantasy, making made-up scenarios redundant.
The West Wing was probably so widely praised for managing to jump this hurdle. It was a TV drama that didn’t just try to reflect upon real world events, but actually managed to influence them. The White House team of The West Wing were, in one sense, even more real than the people who were sitting in office. That’s how it felt to the show’s true devotees, at least, and there are no shortage of them. The West Wing wasn’t tragedy or comedy, either; like so much great TV from the States these days, it seemed very keen to play around with the old narrative structures to which we’ve grown accustomed.
But it’s a tough feat and it’s one that Farragut North struggles to match. You simply can’t help but compare the play to the West Wing, and just as the TV series was created by people who had worked within the world described, so too was Farragut North written by someone who’d worked on the campaign trail himself. Playwright Beau Willimon isn’t Aaron Sorkin; more importantly, he isn’t a team of writers. There are points in his script that would never have made it through a writer’s meeting, and repetitions and flabby bits that sorely demand some editing.
Farragut North isn’t a bad script once you get over this familiarity, and there’s much to be commended in Red Stitch’s production. Brett Cousins proves again that he’s one of the safest bets in Melbourne – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show in which he’s been less than terrific. He has a hard job here: he plays a thoroughly unlikeable press secretary who brings about his own ruin through greed and disloyalty. He fraternises with the wrong people and it gets him in trouble. You really don’t care about him because he’s such an arrogant and opportunistic grub for most of the time, but Cousins gives him something – not exactly sympathy, but humanity – that makes you want to continue to watch how events unfold. Guest performer Lucy Honigman’s also great in her role as a young intern who gets caught up the machinations that spell his undoing and manages to avoid reducing her character to caricature.
The show was packed the night I went along and the audience all seemed to get caught up in the piece – there were lots of appreciative comments overheard in the foyer afterwards. I figure Farragut North will be a winner with Red Stitch’s core audience of subscribers, but for me it lacked the edge of some of the more exciting and dangerous pieces they’ve put on in recent years.
Playing at Red Stitch Actors Theatre until 6 March.