It was literally a star-studded evening for the press night of Embedded at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith. The famous the good and the worthy were there to support Tim Robbins's latest writing and directorial venture. The great man himself was surrounded by press and camera crews, all six foot seven of him towering above the fluffy microphones and adoring fans. Hollywood came to the Riverside, and it came in style.
Tim Robbins appears an unlikely figure to be on the receiving end of American wrath and outrage, but it is easy to see why Embedded has angered and captivated in equal measure. This is political theatre at its finest. It is a compliment to say that Robbins has created a great -- what can I call it? It's so much more than a play -- theatrical experience, at once harrowing and bitterly funny, of Brechtian proportion. There is electricity and gunsmoke and cordite and sweat and sand and heat and rage and dirt and spin and spin and spin in the blackened studio. This hits hard and fast. It bombards the senses, whilst its subtle irony, so rarely seen in American art, gnaws at your stomach and your funny bone.
I do not use the word 'art' lightly. The acting company, thirteen strong, play a giddy thirty-odd characters. The Actors' Gang, a Los Angeles based company which itself seems to explode on this London stage, leaves us poor mortals wide-eyed and jaw-dropped with professional admiration. From the instant the performance begins, these actors display every skill in the book. This is as real and political a subject as you could imagine. Commitment to character and commitment to message, coupled with a realism that transcends acting and enters a new stratosphere of personality portrayal, has to be called 'art'.
Of course, the subject matter has sent quivers of excitement and political nervousness through the media in the past weeks. There is no sanitized version of events to grab hold of here. Robbins has chosen the subject most dear to the American heart, their involvement in Iraq and the war against terror, and provided his own interpretation of corporate greed and political ideology based on mass manipulation. The message is presented in the narrative of a group of soldiers leaving their loved ones, mums, dads, wives, husbands, and going to fight a war that duty and patriotism have only partly prepared them for. They are followed by the mass forces of reporters and news crews who are trained to survive in the front line and tow the national propaganda line.
The reporters are boot-camped into shape by Sarge, played impeccably by Brian Finney, who screams abuse at his charges. 'I am a maggot journalist, sir' they chant as Sarge regales them with his first love, for musical comedy. With every musical cliché imaginable to humankind, Sarge deliciously displays his animal militarism whilst reminiscing at how perfect he was as Anna in The King and I. Whenever he feels afraid he whistles a happy tune. No wishy washy liberalism for Sarge, he'd rather eat glass and listen to Lou Reed that not uphold the propaganda demands of his superiors.
At home, the spin doctors of war are portrayed as masked cartoon characters who masturbate at the philosophical justifications for political mendacity expounded by the 1950s University of Chicago intellectual and spiritual guru of the Bush administration, Leo Strauss. It was Strauss who promoted the ideology of the noble lie, wielded by federal government to influence and manoeuvre public opinion. In this age of instant information, of twenty four hour news reports and live images bombarded into our living rooms, the most important instrument for dissemination of the Straussian noble lie is the journalist in the war zone. Control her/his report and the web of deceit is spun to perfection.
The reality of this war, transposed with Biblical precision to Babylon and Gomorrah , is less romantic, less driven by democratic goodwill. There is nothing new in what we see. Nothing new in the cynicism towards the American system that Embedded employs. What is new is to hear it from Americans themselves. I for one cringed when the American flag was draped over the face of Saddam's statue. I questioned the 'coup' of rescuing a female soldier from a hospital. I grieved for the loss of life through friendly fire. These are realities of war. What is frighteningly believable is the portrayal of those who seek to adapt our responses, who see us -- you and me -- as 'the masses' to be herded like dumb cattle through our lives and into the slaughterhouse of our own meaningless mortalities. Embedded attempts to expose this subculture of power. It does so in a thought-provoking and, often, hilarious way.
'A note from the cast' appears in the programme, informing us that their ensemble approach to performance negates the need for actor biographies. 'That being said' they go on, 'we are also a fairly friendly group of actors, and usually can be found after the show in the lobby mingling, or drinking' and ready to answer any questions thrown their way. It is this 'fairly friendly' that makes me angry. These actors shouldn't be forced to be 'fairly friendly' to anyone. They just deserve to be left alone, with their drinks, to come down from an intense and demanding show. You have got to see it to believe it, and even then, like me you'll question what you've seen. This company sets a new standard for theatre acting in the twenty-first century.
There is going to be a load of media interest over the coming days and weeks in Embedded. Whenever a Hollywood star glides into London you can smell the anti-aircraft guns smoking over Heathrow, as the press long to down this latest onslaught from across the pond. Only the staunchest pro-war lobbyist could fail to appreciate the skill and guts that it has taken to even get an airing for this production, let alone an opening in London. Robbins has created an entertainment little short of genius, performed by an acting company whose commitment and cool will become legendary. If political theatre is your scene, Embedded is for you. If the unusual and the avant garde is your scene, it's also for you. If you want to be part of that privileged group who can hold their heads high and say 'we saw Embedded,' and feel you have shared a moment of theatrical history, then this is definitely for you.
Kevin Quarmby © 2004