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Putting a darkly comic spin on the Edward Snowden case, the latest London premiere by British stage and TV dramatist Mike Bartlett (Cock, King Charles III) is a cryptic chamber piece with a spectacular sting in its tail. Wild opens like a naturalistic John Le Carre spy thriller, but gradually takes on undertones of Pinter-ish absurdity before climaxing with an arresting excursion into Kafka-esque surrealism. Without giving too much away, talk-heavy political dramas do not usually list an illusionist prominently in their credits. Indeed, the technical complexity of James Macdonald’s production for the Hampstead Theatre will make it a tough transfer to other stages, but it could secure a wider audience based on the Snowden connection, Bartlett’s respected track record and its sheer visual wow factor.
The single location is a modern hotel room in Moscow, soulless and airless and blandly international. Snowden in all but name, Andrew (Jack Farthing) is a 28-year-old American exile freshly arrived in Russia after leaking a massive cache of U.S. state surveillance secrets. Suddenly infamous across the globe as both hero and traitor, he is stranded in legal and geopolitical limbo, cut off from his family and girlfriend. After “blowing a whistle as big as the Pentagon,” he is only just waking up to the reality of his new life as a wanted man: prisoner, political pawn and potential target for assassination.
Hiding behind the alias of George, the mysterious young woman (Caoilfhionn Dunne) in Andrew’s hotel room claims to be working for a Wikileaks-style collective. Her boss is an unnamed Julian Assange-like figure who is officially confined inside a London embassy but who, she hints opaquely, might just materialize in Moscow at any moment. Switching tactics between seduction and blackmail, mockery and mind games, she is keen to recruit Andrew as a spokesperson to help rebuild her organization’s tarnished reputation.
Wary of giving up his slippery claim on the moral high ground to join a team of digital anarchists with dubious motives, Andrew initially refuses, so the woman leaves him to reconsider. Later, a second stranger, a diffident Scot who also calls himself George (John Mackay), drops in on Andrew with a similar backstory and a similar offer. He claims no knowledge of the young woman, and exudes much more cool menace than she did. As he subtly warns Andrew, he could easily be a killer posing as an ally. This far down the rabbit hole, nobody can be trusted.
Initially a timely snapshot of the Snowden case, Wild quickly shifts gears into a broader discourse on secrecy, transparency, political power and the negotiable nature of truth. Farthing is a little wan as Andrew, perhaps deliberately, given that he is presented as a callow idealist plunged into a fathomless shadow world. But Dunne (The Night Alive) is extremely compelling, earning huge laughs as much from her nervy facial tics and bendy body language as from Bartlett’s sardonic quips. Her native Irish brogue leaks through her affected upper-class English accent at times, but even if this is unintentional, it fits the play’s theme of deceptive masks and fluid identities. Dunne’s sparky performance easily outshines those of her male co-stars.
Bartlett takes on some commendably meaty themes in Wild, but he fails to invest them with much insight or depth. There is little to provoke or challenge the average theatergoer beyond the vague suggestion that most citizens care little about the evils of government surveillance, torture or drone attacks, just as long as we remain secure in our consumerist cocoon. “Courage is contagious,” Andrew insists. “Not when there’s free Wi-Fi and Netflix,” his cynical female interrogator replies. An arguable case, for sure, but not very well argued here.
Fortunately, all this inconclusive verbal jousting is redeemed by a terrific climax in which Miriam Beuther’s stage design becomes a performer in its own right, dismantling and rearranging itself in a dazzling coup de theatre. Serving both as visual metaphor for Andrew’s disoriented mental state and as stand-alone spectacle, this superb piece of special-effects sorcery propels Wild into the dark-mirror universe of Charlie Kaufman or Philip K. Dick. The preceding drama could have worked harder to earn this reality-warping final flourish, but at least Bartlett’s comic thriller ends on a satisfying detour into the Twilight Zone.
Venue: Hampstead Theatre, London
Cast: Jack Farthing, Caoilfhionn Dunne, John Mackay
Director: James Macdonald
Playwright: Mike Bartlett
Set & costume designer: Miriam Beuther
Lighting designer: Peter Mumford
Sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Consulting illusionist: Ben Hart
Presented by Hampstead Theatre
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