A cage with walls of gauze and a metal grille for a floor takes up the majority of the stage at the tiny Trafalgar Studio 2. In the cage, which is eerily lit by spotlights, is a single chair, empty at the beginning of Edmund White’s play, occupied sporadically throughout by a young man named Harrison, as he talks through the cage walls to his elderly visitor, James. Harrison is on death row for blowing up a building and killing 168 people; James is the writer who has come to tell his story. The setting is Terre Haute. Caroline Bishop went to the first night…
Terre Haute is the name of the high security prison where Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh spent his final days before being executed in 2001, the place where he was visited by writer Gore Vidal, who had previously exchanged letters with the prisoner and had defended him in print. This is the basis for White’s story, though his play is not intended as a realistic depiction of the conversations that occurred between them, nor does it claim to reflect the true agenda or motivations of either person.
What it is, then, is an interesting exploration of what may or may not have driven a young, intelligent military man to commit such a devastating act, but more so, it is a gripping portrait of two seemingly very different people and the relationship that develops between them over the short time they spend in each other’s company.
Peter Eyre’s James is – despite the RP English accent – a Europeanised upper-middle-class American, living in Paris and distinctly un-enamoured of modern America. Riddled with arthritis, old fashioned in his use of a typewriter (which, Harrison points out, was the only thing in their correspondence that indicated James’s age), set in his ways, dry in his wit and confident in his views, he nevertheless admits to the audience at the start of the play “I want him to like me”.
Harrison (Arthur Darvill), in turn, seems to hold a respect for James even before meeting him, and, in relying on the writer to tell his story, displays a dependency on the older man that makes him seem more vulnerable and insecure than you would imagine a mass murderer to be, despite the collected manner in which he presents himself and his convictions. James recognises this absurdity when he laughs that he has hurt the killer’s feelings.
This dependency grows throughout their meetings, compounded by a mutual curiosity of each other’s sexuality; Harrison is at first shocked, then intrigued, by James’s bisexuality, while James’s continual probing finally gets Harrison to admit that he is a virgin. As Harrison faces his imminent death head on, he takes James into his confidence, revealing exactly what he did on the day of the bombing and submitting to vulnerability.
Though Harrison’s motivations give backbone to the play, this is ultimately a touching portrayal of two men from diverse sides of the social fence, finding some respite from loneliness in each other’s company.