Pros: A passionate and engaging piece of theatre.
Cons: At moments staging and set pieces are overly contrived.
In the programme for Whistleblower you will find something of a manifesto from the writer and director, Richard Roques. He says: “I have no problem with art as escapism, but if that is all that is on offer, theatre is in danger.” From the off it is clear that this is political theatre, brazenly and unashamedly. It is theatre with a political agenda, and an aim to both inform and provoke.
This is the story of Edward Snowden. The first half charts how he came to work for the NSA and what that means; the second half watches the repercussions on his life as he goes public. There is a huge amount of information to convey and the play handles it well. Although there are occasional moments of exposition that seem unrealistic (people in very high places seem to know nothing about computers and have to be told everything in capital letters), a huge amount of information is effectively conveyed in a relativity short time.
The portrayal of Snowden is subtly written and nicely acted by Ruari Cannon. The urge to make a hero of the man is suppressed; he is introduced to us as a straightforward, honest and likeable young person, with just that spark of conscientiousness that separates him from his peers. Only in his final monologue does he really step forward with his own direct message, and here he engages the audience with a powerful sincerity.
It is in the moments when the naturalistic dialogue is allowed to flow and the characters allowed to shine that the play’s real strength lies. The overall pace is quick, with actors stepping into multiple roles and new characters constantly being introduced. In this Alessandro Babalola especially impresses for his nuanced performances of far too many characters for me to keep track of, each remarkably real and distinct.
However, the pace is a little tiring at times, and you are left wanting a little more from each scene and fewer changes of set. There is lots of theatrical business (actors all talking in unison, everyone bursting into ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’) and constant rearranging of black boxes – neither of which add to the power of the piece. The set is simple, but the setting atmospheric. The Waterloo East Theatre space is in a railway arch, which works incredibly well for this play, creating the feel of a dark bunker. The regular distant rumble of trains also adds an ominous backdrop.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the play and appreciated its political tone, one qualm I do have is the single-minded glorification of Snowden and vilification of the NSA and associated forces. It is easy to present the other side as one-dimensional, but it is not truly politically courageous. A more diverse range of opinion would let audiences feel they had witnessed a debate rather than a diatribe.
All in all, the play has succeeded in its quest to provoke political discussion and inspire its audience. One word of advice for anyone planning to take in this show though – wrap up warm! It gets cold in a railway arch!
Author: Richard Roques
Directors: Richard Roques and Eloise Lally
Booking Until: 6 March 2016
Box Office: 020 7928 0060
Booking Link: http://www.waterlooeast.co.uk/whistleblower.html