CHRISTMAS EVE at the Ustinov Studio, Bath

Following the hugely successful Kehlmann/Hampton collaboration earlier this year we move from Mentor to tormentor in this uncomfortably pertinent one act interrogation of political values. Judith (Niamh Cusack) a philosopher and political activist has been hauled off the street under suspicion of being complicit in the planting of a bomb which is expected to detonate at midnight on Christmas Eve. Her interrogator, Thomas (Patrick Baladi) is thus working against the clock. The title is ironic in that because of the time of year the usual workings of state are suspended, safeguards have taken a short break; Where will you find a lawyer on Christmas Eve?, he reminds her.  The juxtaposition of outside festivities (or is it disturbance?) with the tinkling of ‘Jingle Bells’ is an irony that seeps through the play.

The piece is no mere one-sided polemic: the interrogator gets a fair crack of the whip and makes a persuasive case for the state’s action. ‘The man who is prepared to die is unconquerable’, he reminds her, hinting at present day threats. Desperate times seem to call for desperate measures.  But in recognizing this, the play shows those cracks in the landscape through which democracy can so easily slip and acts as slap in the face to stop us sleepwalking into a kind of backdoor totalitarianism. Judith realizes that little of her professional, personal or activist career is unknown to the authorities.

Like one of those little ceramic weather houses where a figure, coming out of one door presages warm, the other cold, Judith swaps between vulnerable – emotionally and physically – and morally superior, with at least one foot on the high ground. No doubt she’d like to poke capitalism in the eye with a sharp stick, but has she crossed a line? The other foot is on the more wobbly ground of a demand for, ‘structural violence’. But is the cure any better than the disease – indeed any cure at all?  As Popper has pointed out, the chances of any improvement in society coming out of chaos are vanishingly small.  Mr Kehlmann wisely doesn’t bang us over the head with an answer, but certainly doesn’t leave either side of the argument with any feeling of comfort.

Director, Laurence Boswell, has developed an almost instinctive ability to balance the inner lives of characters with their outer circumstances. Thomas is thus a man with an imperfect, indeed failed, private life whilst Judith has little emotional defense against the truths of her marriage. Somewhere in amongst the danger and oppression is a hint of a failed seduction on the part of Thomas – or is it merely another ploy? He is after all adept at knowing where to dig. In dramatic terms it’s better we don’t know and stay guessing and both writer and director feed us just enough to have us scratching our heads with a smile.

Tim Shortall’s basement set has a bleak, monochrome, cold war feel that heightens the sense of Judith’s vulnerability whilst being the natural domain of her tormentor.

Christmas Eve is a timely reminder that, being jealous of our democracy, we must at all times remain vigilant, never assuming the arguments are being made for us or that those charged with protecting us know what it is they protect. It is a well-polished gem of a play with fine acting to set it off.    ★★★★☆     Graham Wyles    26th October 2017

Photos © Simon Annand

 

Christmas Eve is the first play in the Ustinov Studio’s season of International UK Premieres. It will be followed by Will Eno’s The Open House, directed by Michael Boyd, which will run from Thursday 23 November to Saturday 23 December.