The Observer

Posted on: 11 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews Matt Charman’s timely new play The Observer at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium.


“Power does its work by stealth and the powerful can subsequently deny that their strength was ever used at all” Salman Rushdie wrote in his novel Saliman the Clown.

This quote is very relevant to Matt Charman’s timely new play The Observer (NT’s Cottesloe auditorium), directed by Richard Eyre.

An international group of observers arrives in a West African country to oversee and rubber stamp its first democratic election.  New voters queue in their thousands but a senior member of the observation team finds herself both horrified by the President’s suppressive and brutal tactics and, for once, in a position to do something about it.

Yet as violence on the streets escalates and the country enters free fall, an increasingly angry translator forces this well-meaning outsider to confront the impact of her intervention.

This play throws up some interesting and uncomfortable questions, for example: how can an observer remain independent to ensure a ‘free and fair’ election when regarded with suspicion as just another colonial lackey? ; and is an observer truly independent when she encourages the rural population to cast their votes in the full knowledge that they will help ensure a victory for the Opposition which would be beneficial to the West?

This is a drama which is slow burning with the dramatically underpowered first half serving to set the scene which it does in a realistic and totally convincing manner and then takes off in a fascinating and highly charged second half in which the observer becomes the observed.

Director Richard Eyre elicits fine performances from his strong NT ensemble, most notably Anna Chancellor as the protagonist, the deputy chief of the observation team, Chuk Iwuje as her translator, Aïcha Kossoko as Madame Conteh, chair of the electoral committee, James Fleet as a Foreign Office civil servant, and Cyril Nri as General Okute, a senior member of the armed forces.

By Laurence Green

Where: National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium

When: Continues in repertory.

Box Office: 0207 452 3000.

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