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When the big-boobed whisky monster met the upper-class snoot

Plus: a great play whose value to history it would be hard to exaggerate

7 June 2014

9:00 AM

7 June 2014

9:00 AM

Bakersfield Mist

Duchess, until 30 August

A Human Being Died That Night

Hampstead, until 15 June

Lionel is a king of the New York art scene. An internationally renowned connoisseur, he travels the world creating and destroying fortunes. He anoints a masterpiece, here. He defenestrates a forgery, there. He visits the Californian city of Bakersfield (code in America for Nowheresville) to determine the authenticity of a Jackson Pollock bought for three bucks in a garage sale by an unemployed drunk named Maude. This is a great set-up. Power meets destitution. Sophistication frowns at simplicity. Wealth hits the dirt-heap.

It’s enormous fun, too. As the impeccably tailored Lionel walks into Maude’s cluttered hovel, he’s attacked by two ravening Alsatians. She offers him a whisky ‘to take the edge off’. ‘I’d rather keep the edge on.’ When she asks about his journey from New York she’s horrified to learn there was ‘NO FILM?!’ on the flight. ‘The foundation has its own jet,’ he purrs. The painting, which is wisely concealed from the audience, is produced for Lionel to assess and he subjects it to his ‘blink’ test, which tells him immediately that he’s looking at a Pollock knock-off. So Maude sets about changing his mind. The whisky starts to flow and the pair engage in a bruising bout of confession and self-vindication. Lionel gives Maude an action-lecture (mirroring Pollock’s action-painting technique), in which he argues rather unpersuasively that Picasso was the greatest figure in the history of art and that his eminence was eclipsed only by the arrival of Pollock.

The writer Stephen Sachs spices up the action with ingenious plot twists that keep the audience stimulated, and the outcome uncertain, but these deft tricks mask the play’s real problem: the characters don’t change. Such huge distances separate them that they can’t reach across and plant their toes on the opposite bank. Sachs has opted to make Lionel sexually ambiguous (he’s married but childless and he adores Greek statues of adolescent boys), so when Maude makes a pass at him we already know her seduction is doomed.

The set is wittily adorned with ghastly bric-à-brac and both stars are excellent. Kathleen Turner flings herself at the role of the big-boobed whisky monster with commendable gusto. Tremulous, weak-kneed Ian McDiarmid plays the upper-class snoot to perfection and he patrols the stage as if balancing a priceless teapot on his head. But what a pity the characters don’t get properly or messily entangled in one another’s lives. They never reach out, never learn or grow, never suffer or transform themselves. And because they can’t move each other they can’t move us either.

And it’s all over so fast. A proper play needs an interval and a second half, just as proper football posts need a horizontal and second upright. Here you just get 70 minutes of perky chit-chat, which is fun to watch but entirely uninvolving. When you’re ejected from the Duchess at 8.45 you’ll find it’s too early to claim it’s too late for dinner. Could be a costly night.

Atrocities have their licensed songsters. The official laureate of South African drama is Athol Fugard, whose dry, preachy plays about apartheid seldom fail to bore me into a stultified lump of sedentary bemusement. So my hopes soared when I encountered an apartheid play that claims to be 100 per cent Fugard-free. Its origin is a book by a psychiatrist, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who interviewed Eugene De Kock, a former policeman, who was sentenced to 212 years for murders committed during the struggle against the ANC. In South Africa, they call him Prime Evil.

The play, adapted by Nicholas Wright, opens with Prime Evil in a natty orange boiler suit and leg shackles welcoming his wary interrogator to his cell. He’s clever, warm, engaging and humorous and he makes the astonishing claim that he’s not a racist. It was anti-communism, he says, not colour prejudice that drove him to hunt down and execute ANC insurgents. Over 90 minutes of testimony he makes that amazing assertion stick.

His confession is full of worrying truths. The police had spies at the highest levels of the ANC. White members who took drugs or kept mistresses were recruited easily enough. Black members were abducted and threatened with death. ANC funds from overseas were embezzled. If you were an activist who sent cash to your brethren during the glorious struggle you’ll be irritated to learn that white cops intercepted your money and used it to kill black people. Prime Evil finally admits that the war was futile. ‘We could all be sitting here now, having a beer.’

Matthew Marsh superbly captures the chatty, nervy personality of a killer whose gift for self-evaluation turns him into a curious sort of hero. Noma Dumezweni gives the psychiatrist a magnificent poise and depth. This isn’t just a great play but a document whose value to history it would be hard to exaggerate.

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