‘President Trump was unexpectedly assassinated at 2.32pm today by…’
How long until this headline hits the world’s newspapers? From what quarter of society did the killer come and what where his or her motives? Was the bullet sent on its deadly errand through angry social circumstances or those more politically based and biased? How will the U.S.A adjust? Is this a day for international celebration or outright condemnation? How will history view the event? Fake news or real news? Do we want to hear the contemporary truth of the matter or do we want a sanitised version in the media to satisfy our curiosities? The fact, in this fiction, is that President Trump est mort. Let’s write a musical drama about it folks. We’ll make a fortune.
In a sense, even though it was thirty years ago, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, in their musical drama Assassins, have already written this musical about the potential of future presidential assassinations. At its pumping heart it reflects upon past assassinations and attempted assassinations of U.S presidents and turns the stories into a fascinating history lesson about the minds of determined obsessives, some far more stir crazy than others. The show neither condemns nor celebrates, although it is lively. As the first song lyric says “Hey pal, feelin’ blue? Don’t know what to do? Hey pal. I mean you. Yeah. C’mere and kill a president.”
Assassins is still relevant to today’s audiences and unlike some shows the themes still chime very much with our politically unstable times. The themes include social unrest, the plight of the poor, the anger of the populace at being lied to and cheated, racial tensions and the examination of the darkest corners of today’s society and individual tactics of revenge through an act of violence. It is also about what is understood by celebrity and the eternal legacy of the murderer. To use the word amuse in its broadest and also, most obvious, interpretation this show certainly amuses on all levels.
Given all this murderous murk Assassins is often darkly funny as attested to by tonight’s press night audience throughout the entire one act piece. As soon as Alex Mugnaioni (John Wilkes Booth) assassinates President Abraham Lincoln in the shoot out gallery on stage, gales of laughter issue forth across the auditorium. Should we be really be laughing or does the passing of time allow us to detach and redeploy our sympathetic connections from the victim to the perpetrator? On such considerations do the interpretation of crimes of political passion rest.
There are plenty of consummate performers and performances to darkly enjoy in this stupendous production of Assassins, self assuredly directed by Bill Buckhurst and Georgina Lamb as associate director and choreographer. Simon Kenny’s multi-layered set is superbly eloquent in its locational and visual dexterity. Ben Ormerod’s lighting design and sound design by Chris Full more than complete the picture.
The highlights for us are loose cannons played by Sara Poyser (Sarah Jane Moore) and Evelyn Hoskins (Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme) both of whom fail in their assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford as he left the Senator hotel in Sacramento in 1975. Steve Simmons gives us a truly frightening performance as the demented Samuel Byck whose intent is to crash a hijacked plane on to the White House to kill President Nixon. Simmons’ rambling maniacal speech must be one of the best theatre renditions of recent years. It is chilling and at the same time darkly comical and a glorious feat of acting.
Jack Quarton is beautifully twitchy as the constantly on edge John Hinkley and his singing haunts. Eddie Elliot puts in an enigmatic and sterling performance as failed evangelist, theologian and rejected U.S Ambassador to France, Charles Guiteau. Guiteau (1841-1882) shot President Andrew Garfield twice in the back on July 2nd 1881 as the President prepared to board a train at a junction near to Baltimore. He went to the gallows for his crime and recited his poem ‘I Am Going to the Lordy’ on the steps of the gallows. Sondheim uses these words as one of the most poignant songs of the show. Elliot’s rendition of this song is electric.
The darkness continues with excellent performances by Zheng Xi Yong as Giuseppe Zangara an immigrant bricklayer who suffered burning pains in his stomach for which he blamed the capitalist system and went on to attempt to assassinate President elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, then fell off a chair and missed. He was sent to the electric chair for his attempt on Roosevelt’s life.
Later in the play we meet Lee Harvey Oswald played by Ned- Rudkins Stow in a studied and icy performance. Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F Kennedy. Peter Dukes is especially solid as Polish migrant worker Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz himself assassinated President William McKinley point blank with a gun covered in a handkerchief to give the illusion of an injured hand as he stood in line to meet the President.
Assassins as a whole is well sung and terrifically performed by a talented cast of triple threat actor-musicians who give committed and explosive performances throughout. Two hours has never gone so fast and been quite so Delphic in its entertainment. Highly recommended.
Assassins runs at Nottingham Playhouse until 16 November 2019.
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