Given the immediacy of modern communications, we’re regularly able to witness at close quarters the suffering of those smitten by tragedy. Watching TV news reports of the Asian Tsunami late last year, one could only look-on in helpless bewilderment at the overwhelming devastation brought to the lives of those who had lost everything. Watching these kinds of events unfold is an uncomfortable, chilling experience. In a similar way, ‘Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me’ takes us into the world of 3 people, whose lives have been totally and irreversibly changed in an instant.
The background to this play lies in the complex politics of the Middle East during the second half of the 1980s when radical factions kidnapped European and American ex-pats working in Lebanon. Many of these hostages, including the Englishman and Anglican Envoy Terry Waite, were held not for a few hours or days, but for several years. Some did not survive the ordeal.
The front cloth for this play (visible before the play commences) reminded me of the paintings of the American artist, Mark Rothko (1903-70). It comprises two large, roughly painted panels – one blue and one red – on a dark blue background. Rothko was interested in the effect of one colour hovering over another. The similarities here in connection with the play’s title and subject matter can’t be entirely coincidental.
Through the edges of the cloth, one can just perceive the internal structure of a room – cold, bare and stark. So, before the play even begins, the mood and atmosphere is already established, but only to a degree.
When the front sheet flies away at the start of the performance, we’re confronted with a dingy room – devoid of any decoration or material comforts. One bare light bulb illuminates the space (it’s never switched off). A single steel door controls access. And a fan set high in the wall, provides some ventilation in the oppressively suffocating space. But there’s no window to glimpse the world outside the confines of this cell. It’s a horrific but brilliantly designed set by Anthony Lamble.
Two men, Adam (Jonny Lee Miller) and Edward (Aidan Gillen) are exercising. They’ve been kidnapped in Lebanon and are held as hostages. They’re chained at the legs to radiators. The humorous banter between the two men suggests familiarity and ease, but we soon realise that there’s an immense amount of tension too.
The two men are soon joined by another hostage, Michael (played by David Threlfall). Once he wakes from a deep sleep, we learn that he was captured on his way to the market to buy ingredients for a ‘pear flan’.
As the play progresses, we experience the frustration and terror of these captives as they tortuously struggle their way through the tedium of the ever-lasting day. They ‘write letters home’ by saying them out-loud, they sing, they celebrate Christmas and ‘shoot movies’. We also see the developing relationships between the three men, thrown unceremoniously together, strangers who might not otherwise have met. There’s obvious antagonism between Edward, the Irishman, and Michael, the seemingly naïve and staid Englishman. But, as the play progresses, we learn that it’s unwise to make rash judgements on either appearances or first impressions. Fortitude of character is not always found in the most likely places.
Brian McGuinness’s script is an inspiration. It’s nigh on impossible to imagine writing a play based on such constraints – but the result is near-genius. Although dominated by tedium and the routine of captivity, there’s real progression in the script. Each scene reveals something new about the characters, each scene really matters. And the highly developed characterisation and emotional intensity is perfectly presented. But there’s also rich humour – though one is not always sure whether to laugh or weep. And McGuiness shows us too that in these desperate, heart-wrenching situations, there’s immense dignity, courage and compassion.
The cast produce exceptionally fine, highly distinctive performances based not only on considerable individual and collective talent and skill, but also honed with careful and sensitive direction by Dominic Drumgoole.
“Someone Who’ll Watch Over me’ is both profoundly disturbing and harrowing to watch. In almost every sense, it takes you right to the edge of what human beings can endure. Nevertheless, it’s compulsive, riveting and absorbing theatre of the highest quality. Not for the feint-hearted, but certainly a ‘must see’.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A terrific piece of imaginative empathy....beautifully nuanced revival." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Surprisingly entertaining..." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Superlatively cast and beautifully paced production." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Keeping us absorbed." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "It remains a first-rate play." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Marvellous play."