The programme for The Cause doesn’t even hint at where the true focus of the narrative lies, so it’s either a pleasant surprise or an annoying mismatch of expectations at the end of this quite strained journey. The first half was, let me be brutally honest, tortuous. It’s telling when half the people on my row (not an iota of exaggeration here) leave at the interval. Most of the half that remained were other people scribbling into their own notebooks at this ‘press night’ performance.
There are three narratives, in effect, going on, and the play flits from one to another. It’s like watching three television programmes but instead of watching one after the other, you’re watching a segment of the first, then a segment of the second, then a segment of the third, before returning to the first, and so on.
So just as you’re getting into the story of, say Sandor Teleki (Tony Wredden), in conversation with his niece, Margit (Angela Dixon), you must set it aside as the play switches to focus on Young Sandor (Jesse Decoste) and his chums, of which only Medve (Emma Mulkern) stands out, on account of her gender.
Young Sandor, Tibor (Robert Wilde) and Ede (Alexander Strutt) are indistinguishable from one another by appearance, dress and manner. Just as you’re getting used to The Three Musketeers and A Lady, the play switches to yet another tale, involving Colonel Apis (Alexander Nash) and his faithful if hapless Corporal Tankosic (Mark Joseph). And then back to the elder Sandor.
This kept happening so quickly that it became exhausting before long. As if that wasn’t enough, there are some detailed discussions about disparate subjects, the outcomes of which are ambiguous to say the least. It all came across to me as a series of mini-lectures, about psychoanalysis, then history, then art, then the history of art, and then politics, including an implied and inadvertent argument in support of ‘Brexit’. All of which, in their own way, are worthy subject areas, but none in the manner in which they are presented in this show seem to be part of any encompassing whole. Therefore, I was bored.
It’s after the much needed interval, though, that things improved markedly. Had this been a sporting fixture, I may have deduced that the team manager of the losing side gave one hell of a half-time talk.
It’s better, on balance, for the second half to be better than the first, but as I say, some had, in their view, seen enough.
But even in Act Two things are far from flawless; Apis and his subordinates are portrayed as being as inept as Captain Mainwaring and his troops in Dad’s Army. I note, interestingly, that Jeremy James, the writer of this play, had previously worked with the likes of Arthur Lowe, so perhaps this is entirely forgivable. I am somewhat less accommodating at Apis crying out, “I don’t believe it!” in the manner of Victor Meldrew; I will even go so far as to suggest that David Renwick, writer of One Foot in the Grave, should ideally be paid royalties.
Some dry humour is to be enjoyed in the second half, though not all the punchlines produced hearty laughter. But half a century separates Sandor from what he is trying to recollect, and the method used to aid his memory is the sort of thing the likes of Derren Brown do in the name of entertainment. The narrative continues to plod along, with one team plotting to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the other attempting to achieve the exact same thing. The ‘real’ story that has been haunting Sandor all these years, though, comes fairly suddenly, and feels rushed through.
I cannot identify a weak link in the cast, who do a splendid job with what they were given. It would be quite irresponsible, however, to overlook the non-returners after the interval, or the meandering nature of this play, which takes the scenic route to its destination. If only the first half were as good as the second.
Review by Chris Omaweng
in association with Jermyn Street Theatre
Presents the world premiere of
By Jeremy James
Director Andrew Shepherd
Designer Zahra Mansouri
Lighting Designer Julian MacCready
Jermyn Street Theatre
March 1 to 26, 2016
1963 Oxfordshire – an ageing heavily accented painter seeks the help of a psychoanalyst to look into the causes of his sudden partial paralysis which seems to have no physical origins. Memories of some forty years earlier transport him back to his homeland of the Balkans and Hungary of 1914, to his youthful political zealotry, to the fervour for independence, to a planned act of enormous international consequence and an actual act of grave personal cost. What emerges is Sandor’s devastating experience, the intensely personal yet massively political story of a man who was in Sarajevo on that Summer’s day in 1914 when Archduke Ferdinand drove into town and when a single event took place that was to shape the twentieth century
Based on actual events, The Cause explores themes of urgent contemporary resonance, of nationalism, fanaticism, youthful zeal and its exploitation by those with an extremist agenda. By illuminating events of the past, The Cause sheds a stark light on the present.