The little Finborough Theatre is widely recognised to pack an artistic punch out of all proportion to its commercial weight. Nevertheless, when it announced the world premiere of a play by Caryl Churchill, but to be staged only in its subordinate Sunday-to-Tuesday slot, and with a press night on April 1, it was hard not to wonder whether the theatre was playing a long game for April Fool’s.
The play is indeed genuine, but it dates from 1972, some years before Churchill’s breakthrough and long before the formal adventurousness for which she is now renowned. It is loosely inspired by the work of Martinique-born postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, and makes use of material from his book The Wretched of the Earth describing his work as a psychiatrist in Algeria during the violent campaign for that country’s independence in the 1950s.
It is, I’m afraid, very much a play of its earnest time. From the first scene, in which an unbending civil servant and his more conciliatory but still uncomprehending wife present their schizophrenic daughter to Fanon, and refuse to let her get a word in edgewise, it is clear that this sparely written piece is a relentless indictment of the oppressive colonial society … so much so that I spent some time wondering whether the members of this family were not themselves emblems of various sections of Franco-Algerian society. (“He takes his work home with him,” says Madame, meaning that Monsieur conducts interrogations of liberationist suspects in the family’s house itself.) Other portraits include a paranoid, hopelessly narcissistic revolutionary, a police inspector whose skill at torture is leaking into his domestic relations, and a complacently collaborationist medical colleague.
Fanon was, as one online source nicely puts it, an opponent of non-violence; the Algerian FLN’s violent struggle is implicitly justified time and again. Yet may not such a portfolio of mental imbalances be, collectively, causes of the violence as much as effects of it? If so, then on one side only, is the suggestion.
Jim Russell’s production seemed a little under-rehearsed on opening night (with one or two actors alternately drying and stepping on each other’s lines), and in general the 90-minute staging serves more as a footnote to considerations of Churchill and Fanon than as a drama in its own right.