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Tom Lehrer famously said he gave up satire the day after Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, and likewise making plays about today’s crazy politics is an ill-advised business. After all, no fiction could match the nightly news so why bother and good drama, like a good stock, needs time. Nicholas Hytner at The Bridge, however, has given an opportunity to young Irish playwright Nancy Harris, and she’s used it for a contemporary political play which explores that much maligned and misunderstood of species – The First Lady.
Set in a sterile Convention Centre in the Cote d’Azur (great set by Anna Fleischle) we witness Sophia (Zrinka Cvitešić) the first lady of the US and Helen (Zoë Wanamaker) the first lady of France, being thrown together for an afternoon while their spouses are locked in a summit meeting down the hall. This is more The Room Where It Doesn’t Happen. The summit follows a series of terrorist attacks on 5 US cities and reprisals are being planned with the French trying to rope in the American’s desire for military strikes.
They’ve just been hustled into a back room by jumpy protection officers after Sophia has been accosted by protestors and has had animal blood dramatically splattered all down her pristine white Chanel suit. Statuesque Cvitešić (who won an Olivier for Once) has the stillness of a great movie star and is utterly intriguing as a Croatian glamor model who made it to the White House. She has the steel of a woman who has suffered much (surviving the Balkan war) and for whom the indignities of a being a trophy wife seem to be the least of it. She’s a woman with a hinterland.
Wanamaker brings her signature intelligence and mordant wit to the role of Helen, a middle-aged, British, ex journalist who ended up first lady of France. “I was 41 and was vulnerable” is her witty summation of why she left her husband and children for a man 24 years her junior, neatly overturning the narrative of her as the seductress. Similarities to Brigitte Macron and Melania Trump can’t be avoided of course but Harris wisely uses these merely as a springboard.
Running just 1 hr 40 straight, the play runs in real time. An American press aide (Lorna Brown) and a French factotum (Yoli Fuller) keep interrupting the two and their rudeness is not very convincing considering who these women are.
One minute the staff are controlling and the next warily deferent as if they’ve trapped a wild creature and don’t know what to do with it. It neatly sums up the lot of these women – always on the sidelines, always kept waiting, in the orbit of great power but seemingly powerless. Harris asks are they really so powerless?
Initially rather frosty towards each other and frustrated at being confined, they start bickering but gradually they arrive at an understanding and there is a plot development which, although it totally stretches credibility, provides a clever dramatic impetus to the piece.
Harris deftly explores the scrutiny the two women suffer and the thousand betrayals they must smile through. There are major revelations about the abuse Sophia suffered and about Helen’s philandering husband which further propels the plot and gives us the bigger picture about these women.
It’s a thought-provoking piece graced by two stellar central performances.