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A CurtainUp Review

The Novice
By Lizzie Loveridge

The monochrome set, tense music and shadowed lighting reflect the 1940s film noir period in this political thriller. Sir Richard Eyre, late Director of the National Theatre, directs his own translation of Jean Paul Satre's Les Mains Sales at the Almeida. Instead of translating it literally as "Dirty Hands", Eyre's novice of the title refers in fact to three novices: a young idealist man, converted to a working class socialist/communist party but from a bourgeois background; his na´ve wife, Jessica; and Olga, a party activist for whom the party is her sole raison d'etre, her religion. Like a novice nun, Olga is married to the party.

The central debate of the play is between pragmatism and idealism, between practicality and principle. The premise is this: Olga a dedicated party worker has recruited Hugo to assassinate Hoederer, the party leader because he is negotiating participation in a power sharing government with the Liberals and the Fascists. Hugo is young, middle class and inexperienced and will be Hoederer's secretary. Hoederer is a charismatic leader but the proposed deal compromises his political integrity. In the speech that gave the play its French title, "my hands are dirty", Hoederer says, "Lying is the grease that keeps politics going. We have always lied." Hugo's wife Jessica is caught up in something she does not understand but she is sexually drawn to Hoederer. Hugo questions his resolve to carry out his mission as he too admires Hoederer but despises the power brokering deal. Although Hugo hesitates as he listens to Hoederer's explanations, it is sexual jealousy which tips the balance.

Jamie Glover's Hugo starts the play with that very mannered style of speaking of film acting of the 1940s but we believe in his dilemma as his relationship grows with Hoederer. Natasha Little, an exceptionally pretty actress, struggles to make sense of her part as the resourceful wife playing a game, eventually throwing herself at the feet of the older man. Kenneth Cranham dominates the performance honours. His Hoederer is masterly, experienced and confident. Craggy faced and sturdily built, he commands respect because of his humanity towards Hugo, whom he knows has been sent to kill him. "Better to be a good writer than a bad assassin", he counsels Hugo. There are good support performances from Thomas Wheatley as the effete heir to the throne and Fred Pearson as the no-nonsense Liberal politician.

Eyre believes that Satre is due for a revival. With the pragmatism versus principle debate continuing the play does echo the debate in Britain during Thatcherism when it looked as if the left wing Labour Party would never win an election. Tony Blair's advent to power was a road of compromise or moderation or expediency depending on your viewpoint. Casting Emer Gillespie, an Irish actress as the troubled Olga also strikes a reference to Irish politics. However, good as this production is, the play feels dated. The world has moved on from the revolutionary debates just after the Second World War. We have seen what happened to those socialist countries set up by revolutionaries. If we are to have a Satre revival it's likely to be for his philosophical works or maybe the novels, rather than his plays.

Written by Jean Paul Satre's asLes Mains Sales
English Version by Richard Eyre
Directed by Richard Eyre

Starring: Kenneth Cranham
With: Jamie Glover, Natasha Little, Emer Gillesepie, Alex Palmer, Frank Harper, Fred Pearson, Thomas Wheatley
Set Design: Anthony Ward
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Sound Design: Scott Myers
Music by Richard Hartley
Running time: Two hours and five minutes with an interval
at The Almeida Theatre, Upper Street, Islington London N1
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 17th June 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th May 2000 performance

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