Review: White House Murder Case at Orange Tree Theatre
The White House Murder Case is prescient but puzzling. Richard Nye has a mixed reaction to a play of two halves
A week, as Harold Wilson famously observed, is a long time in politics. Yet watching The White House Murder Case, the current offering at The Orange Tree in Richmond, one could be forgiven for thinking that 40 years is no time at all.
It is four decades since Jules Feiffer – the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist, author and playwright – created this political satire about US governmental shenanigans, in which an embattled president seeks to spin his way out of trouble in the run-up to the presidential election. But the action, we’re told, takes place “around 40 years in the future” – in other words, now. This imbues the plot with an eerily unsettling prescience.
Here is a country engaged in a futile war, deploying proscribed weapons – and bungling the deployment to boot – and attempting to sell the escapade to the voters. Here too is a president embroiled in domestic scandal, as a murder is committed within The White House itself. The Vietnam War was raging as Feiffer wrote, but Watergate was still over the horizon, while the War on Terror was just a tale told by an idiot. History has lent eagle’s wings to a darkly comic plot.
And yet, for all that, there is something unsatisfying about this play. Impeccably acted, with Bruce Alexander (Inspector Frost’s boss in the late lamented TV series A Touch of Frost) as the President, and – as ever at the Orange Tree – imaginatively staged, it nevertheless promises more than it delivers.
Perhaps it is a case of cynicism fatigue. Impugning the integrity of the political fabric was once a novel act of creative rebellion: today it has a jaundiced, bandwagon feel that irritates as much as it shocks. There is nothing new under the sun, and the Machiavellian streak on view in this play has been illumined many times before.
If that were the only problem, however, it would be anachronistic to complain: Feiffer can scarcely be blamed for failing, in 1970, to predict how thoroughly life would imitate his art. But there is a structural flaw too. In alternating between The Oval Office and the war zone, where two nerve-gassed soldiers are gradually slipping towards a gruesome death, the play suffers an identity crisis in tone. For while the former strand of the plot takes on a comic absurdity, with witty interplay between the President and his advisors and plenty of suspended disbelief, the latter resolves itself into something altogether more disturbing. There is a hint of Lear and the Fool about the increasingly unhinged dialogue between the two dying soldiers, and – concealed though it is beneath a carapace of grotesque visual humour – the gradual process of bodily disintegration hints bleakly at moral and civil decay.
Somehow, these halves do not quite make a whole. Like the President, caught between the dictates of conscience and power, the play is neither one thing nor another. A pity, for its insights are considerable and at times it most certainly entertains. It’s just that, at the end of the evening, one is not entirely sure what manner of production one has seen.
The White House Murder Case is showing at the Orange Tree Theatre until November 10. For tickets visit the Orange Tree’s website or call the box office on 0208 940 3633