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A CurtainUp London Review
A Few Good Men
A Few Good Men was a Broadway hit before it was filmed with Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore in 1992. Aaron Sorkin got the idea for this play from his lawyer sister Deborah, who went to Cuba to defend some Marines at Guantanamo Bay accused of attempted murder. The author, who was only 28 and working as a bar tender when he penned this play, has since gone on to write amongst other things, The West Wing, the first four seasons of which starred Rob Lowe. Having seen A Few Good Men, we await with intense anticipation Aaron Sorkin's new play The Farnsworth Invention which will have its world premiere at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin this winter.
The play's pivot is that classic theatrical device, the courtroom trial. (Maybe theatrical lawyers are on the up with Mamet's newish play Romance opening at the Almeida this week?). A Few Good Men is the story of three Naval lawyers, in Kaffee's words: "the pushy broad, Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway (Suranne Jones), the smart Jew, Sam Weinberg (Dan Fredenburg) and the Harvard mouth, Daniel A. Kaffee (Rob Lowe)."
Lieutenant Kaffee is called upon to defend two soldiers, Harold W Dawson (Michael Wildman) and Louden Downey (Nick Court), who are accused of murdering a fellow soldier, Private Santiago. The defendants claim that they were following orders from superiors. Code Red is arcane, hazing, a way of persuading soldiers to conform by using social pressure and torture. The hierarchy close ranks and the defending soldiers are hung out to dry. Southern Bible basher Jonathan James Kendrick (Jonathan Guy Lewis) is implicated, as is their Commanding Officer, the high flyer with Pentagon contacts, Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Ellis). The play culminates with the courtroom scene in front of Judge Julius Alexander Randolph (Robert D. Phillips) with Jack Ross (John Barrowman) the prosecuting attorney.
There are many parallels with the recent British Army scandal and cover up of the deaths of four young soldiers at Deepcut Barracks, Surrey from 1995 to 2002. The victim in A Few Good Men, Private Santiago, has written endless letters asking to be released from the misery he finds in the Marines. Ultimately the play is about what it takes to build a fighting force of men who are trained to obey and the discrepancy between society's values and those in the military hierarchy. And yes, we expect these people who may be subject to our derision to defend us with their life, so what's on trial are the methods the armed forces use to get results and the ease with which the press rush to blame the army and the police when they make mistakes.
What holds out interest is not just the battle to find the truth, of lawyers versus the institution of the US Marine Corps, but the tensions between the three lawyers and especially in Kaffee's laid back and intellectual approach ("passionate about nothing except maybe softball") versus Joanne Galloway's verve and determination in the pursuit of justice. This contrast is well played out in both performances. Suranne Jones as Galloway is sure of herself while Rob Lowe as Kaffee is self deprecating, ever aware of the necessity to live up to his famous liberal lawyer father's ability and career. Galloway glows with the sure footedness of the righteous whereas Kaffee questions his ability. The irony is that we do not for a moment doubt that Kaffee is intellectually gifted, a star of his generation -- but will he ever feel involved?
Audience members need to be aware that Rob Lowe's diffidence as Kaffee is a measure of his consummate acting ability. Suranne Jones is dark eyed pleading when she is not allocated the case, she contacts a relative of one of the defendants and ends up on the defence team. Galloway is also the career naval officer who faces prejudice against women. There is a searing scene when Jessep alludes to Galloway in derogatory sexual terms and embarrasses both her and Kaffee with his crass remarks. I was blown away by Sorkin's wit.
Rob Lowe is an extremely handsomeKaffee with the sex appeal of someone whose repartee makes you smile and your eyes shine. He is playing a man 15 years younger than his age but, thanks to his boyish good looks, he gets away with it.
I do not remember the film being as funny as this play. Kaffee has some superb one liners. In his defence of a soldier threatened with prosecution for selling for ten bucks some oregano he quips "What could he be charged with -- possession of a condiment?"
I cannot fault any of the performances or indeed the direction. I came away believing that I had seen real Marines. Jack Ellis is of course superb in that meaty part of Colonel Jessep, the manipulative man whose raison d'être is that being in the military is about saving lives.
The action switches from Washington to the base on Cuba and back to the courtroom in DC. Some scenes are dominated by the giant backdrop of the heraldic Marine Seal, others use wire fencing obscured by khaki sheeting and back lighting to show flash back scenes. The pressed uniforms, shoes shined to military standard a as well as the furniture have that solidity which makes all feel authentic. There are atmospheric snap shot scenes, visual bites where we hear helicopters judder and men in camouflage uniform are winched down into action. Other scenes are divided by the sound of men chanting marching rhymes. The gold British royal crest at the top of the proscenium arch is replaced by the crest of the United States for this production. Our viewpoint changes in the courtroom as the set moves to draw us in as the trial tightens.
A Few Good Men is a deeply satisfying drama at many levels. I highly recommend it.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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