Joe Penhall’s Landscape with Weapon premiered at the National Theatre back in 2007. Its premise is that an engineer has created cutting edge, drone-based military technology that will revolutionise the way that war is executed. It contrasts themes of the moral responsibility of the individual with those for the public good, challenging us to see the human struggle beneath the pressures of insidious government power and financial coercion. It’s a complex discussion, drawing on ideas of secrecy, manipulation, reframing of the truth, and personal incentive, which flip-flops between alternative perspectives.
These days, drone technology is much more widely known and understood, so at the Cockpit Theatre in 2022 the topic feels less than innovative, despite pertinent references here to its use in Afghanistan. The surrounding issues offer a perfectly valid foundation for discussion, but they do create a production hinging largely on extensive, dense debate. This means the action itself leans towards the static. It’s disrupted by occasional more physical incidents, such as an unexpected food fight, but often feels intellectually laborious, and sometimes it seems to be going over old ground.
The dramatic story which works around the debate is also clearly flawed. Ned (played by Danny Szam) is said to be of high intelligence, from an educated family background. It seems totally implausible that having signed the Official Secrets Act he would have a conversation about his military work just because his brother puts the pressure on a bit. I’m imagining that the suggestion is he’s depressed and his own defences are low, but it’s still a bit of a stretch for someone at that level. His understanding of intellectual property rights is massively naïve, and just as unconvincing. Equally, how could a man of such intellect not recognise earlier that a paradigm-changing military tool would be confiscated by the government?
Ned’s character goes through distinct changes, so perhaps more pronounced definition to his role’s development – visibly contrasting his mental decline against his intellectual strength – would give greater texture to the play and help explain these weaknesses. Szam does his best to fill out the character, but he’s really fighting a losing battle against the script. The end of the play also doesn’t ring true, given the dangerous stakes described as the action progresses.
Ian Nicholas’ stage design is simple, sharp and literally black and white, in juxtaposition to the exposition; but it doesn’t really take us anywhere. There are no great distinctions between the kitchen table and the government offices, feeding in to the stasis.
For me, the moments that really give a hit are when Ned the engineer is described as “an artist”. This reframes the term in the contemporary context of a Britain where the arts are routinely undervalued, yet creativity and innovation has been so essential throughout the recent pandemic. Further, ideas of reframing the truth in our era of ‘fake news’ are also interesting, but lost in the hefty scientific substance of the dialogue.
This is not a black and white discussion, so there’s room for some blurred edges in the presentation. I spotted hints of Kafkaesque absurd lucidity, which could easily and validly be emphasised with some flux in the lighting, thus animating and physically interpreting the conflict. Largely, I’d be happy to see Director Jason Moore take a knife to Penfold’s text, cutting it back by half an hour and shaping it to more closely draw on current relevancies, whilst giving our protagonist more visible personal instability to justify his poor perceptions.
Written by: Joe Penhall
Directed by: Jason Moore
Set and costume design by: Ian Nicholas
Sound and Lighting design by: Jonny Danciger
Produced by: OnBook Theatre
Landscape With Weapons plays at Cockpit Theatre until 28 September. Further information and bookings can be found here.