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By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson


Monday, June 8, 2009.


The minutiae of polling, electoral registers and electoral committees  are not natural sources for dramas  but Matt Charman’s riveting new play The Observer moves effortlessly from the rituals of Western liberal democracy  to the particularity of the same process in countries where the British political establishment aim to impose it as a model of western civilisation.


But given the way the British political establishment has been tarnished by the recent expenses scandal it is worth asking if Europeans have any moral authority to lecture others on politics and corruption.


Election monitoring and observation missions are the preferred method of Western liberal intervention in this case, rather than violent wars of conquest and illegal aggression seen recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Set in a fictitious West African country, the play's panoramic view unpicks the bureaucratic procedures of observation missions and the emotional impact it has on the scrutinised and the scrutinisers. With the award-winning playwright asking:


"By what political, legal or moral authority do the powerful countries of the West lecture developing nations on their internal political affairs?"


Like the real world, his answers are equally vague and unsettling. Observation Team chief Henrik [Peter Forbes] and TV journalist Declan [Lloyd Hutchinson] capture this cynicism perfectly. 


Deputy Head of Election Observation Fiona Marshall is the vessel for many of these uncertainties; an earnest but harassed official carrying on her own shoulders the fate of the entire country – whether they seek such attention or not. Her Blairite moral certainties contrasted by Chuk Iwuji's initially wide-eyed and naïve translator Daniel.


It’s the elevation of elections to the mythical ‘Mandela’ moment of 1994, or the Obama victory of November 2008. But as the realpolitic of the bureaucratic mechanisms used to manipulate the country’s institutions dawn on Daniel Iwuji’s excited and enthusiastic portrayal morphs into doubt and resentment. It’s thoroughly convincing. 


The scene between Fiona Russell and Electoral Committee Members as Madame Conteh, [Aïcha Kossoko]  Mr Sesay [Louis Mahoney] and Dr Daramy [Cyril Nri] turns the tables. The counter-arguments are given, but a little too emotionally – dispassionate dismantling of the liberal intervention would have been better.


The Cottesloe at the National Theatre is a small space and its stage [designed by Rob Howell] is utilised sparingly. As the drama unfolds over the period of two election rounds even the drop down blinds - which obscure the stage and set changes - display filmed scenes to fill in the spaces, together with 24-hour news channels' style of ‘crawling’  background information.


At two hours plus, with Richard Eyres’ expert direction, the ensemble cast sprints through fast-paced scenes depicting violence and political manipulation, scrutinised by those who – supposedly - know better.


Overseeing everything – including the personal lives of the Observers - is cynical and condescending Foreign Office representative Saunders [Peter Forbes] a shadowy figure representing the unseen hand of the British Imperialists.


These are important questions but the underlying assumptions made by Charman – despite realistic dialogue and precise storytelling – is that there is something not quite right in the developing world. In the light of the corruption exposed by the ‘credit crunch’ as well as the Westminster expenses scandal and with Britain’s political institutions and establishment held in contempt, it is a moral superiority that has no real substance.


This is expertly executed and superbly acted. It is filled with clock-ticking tension and good political theatre.  It may not have been what the playwright intended but this production reveals more about western obeservers than the observed Africans.


Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.



The Observer

by Matt Charman,

directed by Richard Eyre

20 May 2009

Cottesloe at The National Theatre

until 08 July 2009




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