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The President Of An Empty Room

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 18 April 2008

The President Of An Empty Room by Steven Knight, screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things, opened at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre last night. The play is set in a Cuban cigar factory and steeped in Cuban music, cigars and revelations. Laura North was at the press night to watch the smokin’ performance and learn more about cigars.

Steven Knight, the author, writes in the programme that he would not offer any analysis of the play: “I would, however, like to pay homage to the cigars that inspired me to write it. There is no pleasure more despicable than smoking a cigar.”

The power of the cigar is strong in the play. The Cottesloe, the National’s smallest theatre, is transformed into a Cuban cigar factory, designed by the Olivier Award-winning Bunny Christie. The entire floor space becomes the work place, with audience members fitted around on three levels, as if they had arrived at the factory and had to find a place to sit. Among the factory-hand audience members were Zoe Wanamaker, Imelda Staunton, Nicholas Hytner and someone who looked suspiciously like James Franco (Harry Osborne in Spiderman, the super-hero’s best friend), although the smoky haze made it difficult to be sure…

More than half the set is taken up with wooden desks where the workers roll their cigars, which is an art and also a means of survival. At one end of the stage, the overseer Don Jose (Jim Carter), officially “the cigar taster”, sits and smokes alone in an office. Smoking alone is essential according to Knight: “You have to do it alone because it is lethal to you and everyone around you.” Don Jose is so committed to the tobacco that he says to the tearful Dona Albina, “Please don’t cry, the humidity in here is carefully balanced.”

There is a constant fug in the air, with shafts of sunlight mixing with the smoke to produce a yellow, tobacco-stained haze; a huge extractor fan whirs round lazily. The illusion of an outside world is created with sound-effects; music from a passing vehicle, getting louder and fading away, the noise of a truck as it travels around the factory, and then muffled music from next door. The authenticity of the cigar factory is taken one step further: the cast were taught how to roll cigars by master blenders and the cigars on stage are all rolled by the actors. After the performance, one of the cast was still hanging on to a (perfect) cigar he’d made during the show and described how the cigars are made – apparently a complex and artistic process.

When the show starts, Miguel Fernando (Paul Hilton), the senior roller, is alone on stage. He is joined one by one by the other workers. As the boss appears to be absent, Miguel declares the workplace a democracy and everyone starts concentrating on flamenco, opera, disagreements, revelations and sex instead of work. But there is a material absence in the factory: Alexandra (Georgina Ackerman). Everyone mentions her name, but only a few know where she has gone. It emerges that she has set sail for America, and some of the occupants of the factory fear for her safety. Miguel Fernando is deeply in love with her, and turns to despair, anger and heroin. While Miguel is wrapped up in his methods of comfort, other concerned parties turn to Cuban voodoo (Santeria), which reveals some shocking truths…

If cigars are the primary influence for the play, then music must come a close second. There is live music throughout the show, accompanied by dancing, including a dramatic rendition of the tango. The workers persistently argue about what music to play, the radio is turned on and off, and one worker only wants to listen to Michael Jackson, while Miguel tries to demand silence. Then, a violinist (Cuban musician Gabriel Fonseca) found lying in the street entrances them with his music.

This is Steve Knight’s first play, although he has already enjoyed great success in the film and TV industry. His first screenplay, Dirty Pretty Things, directed by Stephen Frears, won a host of prestigious awards including four BIFAs and also received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. He started a freelance writing partnership with Mike Whitehill, providing material for Jasper Carrott, Ruby Wax and Jonathan Ross, and devising game shows including Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and the new National Lottery format. He is currently working on five screenplays including an adaptation of his own novel, Alphabet City.

The director, Howard Davies, is Associate Director at the National. He established and ran the Warehouse Theatre for the RSC where he directed and produced 26 new plays in four years. His West End and Broadway productions include The Talking Cure with Ralph Fiennes, The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey, Private Lives with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, and Breath Of Life with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. He has won many awards including Oliviers, Evening Standard, Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards.

The President Of An Empty Room runs until 27 August 2005.

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