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Theatre review: The White House Murder Case

Theatre

Written around 40 years ago but set 40 years in the future, this dark political satire still resonates strongly as a commentary on contemporary governments, writes reviewer Greg Elliott.

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Jules Feiffer is an American cartoonist, satirist, novelist, screenwriter and playwright with an eye for the absurd, ridiculous and hypocritical: he has been a major influence on fellow satirists in a range of media.

Feiffer’s The White House Murder Case was written during the Vietnam War, with the Richard Nixon administration in mind, but – like the work of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, which so brilliantly predicted global events many years before their time – it works superbly as a commentary on contemporary US governments.

Feiffer’s ironic wit actually includes all governments, not only American, involved in bureaucratic bungling, propaganda and cover-ups.

In this Red Phoenix Theatre production of The White House Murder Case at Holden Street Theatres, the stage has been divided into the White House office and a battlefield, where the US is at war with Brazil. The action switches between the politicians and the soldiers in the field.

In the heat of battle, and after some delicious dialogue about who has the authority to issue the use of nerve gas, an order is given to employ the deployment – with disastrous results.

In contrast, the politicians plan to fabricate lies to explain to the public how so many of their own soldiers have been affected by a US weapon. When a murder is committed within their very office, accusations are made, investigations are begun, and cover-ups are suggested in order to keep the party in power.

Director Eddy Knight has a strong cast to work with and the actors are all comfortable with their American accents. Robert Bell plays a fresh-faced, energetic patriot (Lieutenant Cutler); convinced by his government’s propaganda that Brazil is a genuine enemy, he wants to do all he can to win the war. He is accompanied by Matt Houston as Captain Weems, the CIA agent posing as a military doctor to ascertain certain information from the soldier.

Feiffer’s dialogue is funny, despite the situation being like a piece of dark, Beckettian absurdity.

Gary George is outstanding as General Pratt, who, having been badly injured in battle, walks awkwardly with a gammy leg and cane, bloodied facial burns, blindness and a mechanised voice. George’s timing and mannerisms are brilliant, and his characterisation of a modern Quasimodo is hysterical.

Tim Williams, as President Hale, looking somewhat like George W, brings some sincerity to the manufacturers of fake news; Brant Eustice (Postmaster General Stiles) captures the insincerity of a man wanting to rise to power, and Joshua Coldwell, as the slightly mad Professor Sweeney, energetically conveys the scientist more interested in his experiments than the people who are experimented on.

Knight has done a terrific job with this production: it is fast and funny, the characterisations are solid and entertaining, and Feiffer’s script has the audience incredulous about the way governments distort the truth and manipulate their citizens.

Red Phoenix Theatre is presenting The White House Murder Case at Holden Street Theatres until August 19.

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