THEATRE REVIEW: The Observer
Reviewed by Tola Ositelu
The Observer written by Matt Charman and directed by Richard Eyre is set in an unnamed African State on the cusp of its first ‘free and fair’ democratic election. The Observer of the title is deputy chief of the British observation team Fiona Russell (played by veteran of TV, film and theatre, Anna Chancellor).
Fiona is going through an always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride phase of her career. She is passed over for promotion once again because of her apparent lack of transparency – according to her boss, Fabian (Peter Forbes). Fiona is assisted by a small team of observers from the UK and Europe, Tony (played rather over-zealously by Leo Bill) and Edi (Isabel Pollen) as well as her indigenous translator, Daniel Okeke (Chuk Iwuji) who abounds with enthusiasm for this historic event taking place in his country.
The role of the observer is supposedly a non-partisan one; he or she is merely there to take notes and report back to the international community as the country in question makes tentative steps towards democracy.
However the play highlights how difficult it is for an observer to maintain a neutral stance when they realise the potential power they have. Problems then arise when Fiona has to choose between being true to the job description and satisfying her personal ambition to ‘make a difference’ in the world. Even with the best intentions, can interfering with another country’s electoral process ever be justified?
From the outset The Observer takes risks. The play opens with Fabian vomiting violently into a tin bucket. Dialogue takes place in both English and the Igbo language of eastern Nigeria (interpreted by Daniel). This in itself is a brave move and makes for a welcome change, giving the play a certain authenticity.
Eyre’s direction keeps The Observer moving at a good pace; there’s no dragging of the storyline and it stays true to the manic nature of election time in such circumstances. Rob Howell’s stage design captivates- whether depicting a rainstorm or the backdrop of a conversation taking place in the midday sun. Interspersions of BBC24-style news feeds also help to keep things visually stimulating.
Behind the scenes emotions are high amongst the observers and they are torn between reporting things as they see it and presenting things in a way that is more palatable to the international community. It’s a foregone conclusion at the start of the play that the incumbent president will win the election and the observers don’t wish to report against the grain. Inconvenient truths are glossed over – to an extent; pressure put on those intending to vote against the President is dismissed as ‘just the way things are done here’. The cynicism of the western press is embodied in Irish Declan who is more interested in presenting a sanitised version of the truth fascinating enough to boost his career but not necessarily a real exposé on the good, the bad and the ugly of the whole election affair.
Despite her archetypal British stoicism, Fiona cares more about her job than is evident at first. At times she is clinically officious but as sacrifices she’s made for the job are revealed – sleep deprivation, stress put on her marriage due to her frequent absence – it is clear Mrs Russell is more devoted to electoral justice than meets the eye.
As a civil servant formerly based in Leeds, Fiona became disillusioned by the complacent attitude of her fellow Brits, not always availing themselves of the privilege to vote. In her role as international election observer she travels the world hoping to make a difference. This time around the messiah-complex in Fiona is awakened when the unnamed country’s polls suggest the election might not be as predictable as first thought. She takes it upon herself to help the people usher in the winds of change and soon finds she is manipulating the system to her own, albeit, benevolent ends. This moral ambiguity is central to the play.
As is the subtle reference to the lingering effects of colonialism – the itch that western countries have to intervene in order to export their ideals thereby retaining some influence. The Observer parodies the sometimes inadvertently patronising way expats relate to the ‘natives’ such as assumptions of their ignorance, speaking English loudly and slowly despite being perfectly comprehensible to the listener.
Fiona picks holes in the country’s law and inchoate electoral procedures momentarily forgetting that no nation has a flawless system. She sees herself coming to the rescue, lauding those would-be martyrs taking serious risks to build democracy in their country. Yet she sometimes fails to grasp the potential danger of their actions and how they impact the families of these election heroes. This is indicative of the even-handed nature of the play. Playwright, Charman, is cognisant of the challenges facing an embryonic election system without ignoring its glaring faults.
The Observer also strikes the right balance between serious political discourse and injections of levity. There are allusions to romantic feeling between Daniel and Fiona but these are never allowed to get in the way of the credibility of the story.
Having had experience as an international election observer I felt an affinity to The Observer from the start. The sensitivity of Charman’s script captures accurately the eagerness of the inhabitants of a fledgling democracy to be enfranchised. All this is brought to life by a solid cast. Stand out scenes include Fiona being called to a tense hearing in front of the Electoral Committee with stellar performances all round and Joy Richardson’s brief but wonderful turn as Duduzile, a distressed mother whose son is beaten by thugs as he ferries voters to and fro on his motorcycle.
The Observer manages to educate without being sanctimonious or judgmental in tone and is probably the next best thing, save becoming an International Election Observer, to being brought face to face with how much is taken for granted by voters in the occidental world.
The Observer is now playing at the National Theatre, SouthBank, London SE1 9PX. Tickets start from £10. Box office: 0207 452 3000 or visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk