What gives us the right to be better off than the poor? How can we enjoy the privileges of a comfortable life in a Western democracy when these advantages owe so much to the misery of the exploited in repressive regimes? Why do we insist on demanding more of the best for ourselves and our children when other people have next to nothing? These questions, which a lot of us spend our lives trying to ignore, are implacably raised in Wallace Shawn’s unsparing 100-minute monologue, which is revived now by the Almeida in Robert Icke’s powerful, site-specific production.
Shawn always wanted the piece “to arouse thought and action, not appreciation and enjoyment” and so initially performed it in apartments, and private homes, resembling – in John Lahr’s description – “a Marxist Ancient Mariner” – eschewing a conventional theatrical set-up. The twist in the Almeida revival is that Tobias Menzies delivers the monologue in a luxury hotel suite to an audience of just 25 people each night. A verbal attack on exclusivity unfolds, discomfitingly, in an exclusive environment, with glasses of wine and bowls of posh chocolates laid out for the punters’ delectation as they await the arrival of the actor.
Theatre highlights of 2015
Theatre highlights of 2015
1/7 Hamlet - Barbican
The advance sales broke records, but there will be 100 £10 tickets held back for each day’s performance of the most hotly anticipated classical production of the year: Benedict Cumberbatch as Shakespeare’s brainiest hero, directed by Lyndsey (Chimerica) Turner.
2/7 Bend it Like Beckham - Phoenix Theatre
Gurinder Chadha directs a musical adaptation of her film about a Sikh girl who defies her family for football, scored by Howard Goodall. We’re promised a celebratory state-of-the-nation comedy.
3/7 Hard Problem - National Theatre
The Hard Problem is consciousness in Tom Stoppard’s first new play for nine years. It’s set in a brain science institute and directed by Nicholas Hytner, who steps down at the National Theatre after a glorious reign, in April.
4/7 The Hook - Royal & Derngate
To celebrate the Arthur Miller centenary, James Dacre directs a world premiere, adapted by Ron Hutchinson from Miller’s FBI-suppressed screenplay about mobsters in the dockyards of 1950s Brooklyn.
5/7 Farinelli and the King - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Mark Rylance stars in this fascinating real-life story, dramatised by his wife Claire van Kampen, about Philippe V of Spain and the castrato whose voice cured him of insomnia and despair.
6/7 Antigone - Barbican and King's Theatre
The visionary Flemish director Ivo van Hove brings us Sophocles’s great tragedy in a modern version starring Juliette Binoche.
7/7 The Vote -Donmar Warehouse
James Graham aims for a media coup with his drama set in a fictional London polling booth in the last 90 minutes of Election Day 2015. The run culminates in a live broadcast on More4 on the day.
There is another ironic aptness in the location, for the monologue keeps returning to the long dark night of the soul when the speaker, taken ill in a hotel room in some unnamed developing world dictatorship, succumbed to all-encompassing guilt about the gulf between the haves and have-nots. Shawn has written that the role is “designed to fit a very wide spectrum of performers”. Barefoot, in a grey T-shirt and casual trousers, the excellent Menzies is the essence of a well-bred, liberal-minded English thirtysomething. He’s sensitive, affable, intimate, and hypnotic as he stares into our eyes tries to win us over to the idea that there’s no morally respectable justification for our pampered way of life and he makes us almost taste the “horrible rotting lovelessness” of his alienated state.
The Fever has been decried by critics such as Frank Rich as “a musty radical chic stunt destined to be parodied”. But here it seems more than ever to be not a wallowing in liberal guilt but a shrewd analysis of why such guilt is not enough. When we are ushered through to the plush, untidy bedroom, Menzies’ speaker suggests both slow-release mental breakdown and angry, intense lucidity.
He describes not just the twisted thought-processes and the barbarous lengths to which prosperous liberals will resort to hang on to their privileges but the impotence of bleeding-heart compassion. Sympathy will not improve the life of the poor; a philosophy of gradual change will better their lot, nor will artists who fashion works of art that inspire fellow-feeling with their condition.
Their misery will end only when they rise up against their oppressors. The luck of birth has not been divinely ordained; commodities do not drop from heaven with their prices on them. The Fever, in the final analysis, is reminiscent of King Lear rather than a Marxist sermon.
To 7 February (020 7359 4404)