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Now or Later

We were being jackasses at an off-campus party — it's not like we revealed anything about my father, or state secrets or something. What's the story?— John Jr
Now or Later
Eddie Redmayne as John Jr
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
Now or Later is a brilliantly conceived play. Like Greek tragedy, American playwright Christopher Shinn finely balances the issues so there is right and wrong on both sides and plenty to debate. Add some outstanding performances and the surefooted direction of the Royal Court's artistic director Dominic Cooke and this play is a real delight.

The Democrats are poised to claim victory in the Presidential election when on the internet, a story starts to break about the son of the President Elect having impersonated the prophet Muhammad at a party at his Ivy League college. The spin doctors and advisors are concerned that this story might dominate the important first few days of what should be their presidential victory celebrations and undermine the Democrats' position if this issue is exploited by the Republicans.

John Junior (Eddie Redmayne) is bright, articulate, gay and his own man. A few years before, John Jr went into therapy after he tried to commit suicide by turning over his Jeep. He is aware that his father's political ambition, and his mother's too, have driven much of his young life but John Jr has struck a deal with his politicised parents that he is entitled to his own privacy and a degree of separation from the political melée.

John Jr is being accused of behaving in anti Islamic way but he explains the background of the incident at his Ivy League university to his father's advisor, Marc (Adam James). When the cartoons which had mocked the prophet were posted at his college and the perpetrators punished, John Jr had written an article for the college magazine defending the right to free speech. In class, he had been rounded upon for what was taken to be his anti-Islamic views. The same people who were criticising him were going to a "naked" party which is a college party held in a series of rooms, and in each room people are progressively less clothed until the final room, where they are completely naked. John and a friend went to this party, John dressed in a t-shirt with Muhammad written on it and a turban on his head made out of two pillow cases and his friend Matt (Domhnall Gleeson) dressed as a well known fundamentalist Born Again Christian preacher, Pastor Bob. Both went to the party to point out the inconsistency of defending Islamic fundamentalism and taking part in a "naked" party.

Unfortunately, like some college parties, events tend to get out of hand and someone films on their cell phone John and Matt messing about with a dildo. This video is released just as the news comes through that John's father John Snr has won the election. The Islamic world is understandably offended at the behaviour of their son of the American President Elect and in Pakistan there is rioting. John Jr is invited to make a statement but disagrees with the wording.

Hildegarde Bechtler gives us a large chain hotel room set, anonymous but comfortable and a wide screen television to convey the sounds of the campaign. The lighting too gives us the time of day and the celebration fireworks.

The writing is interesting because there are so many issues here. There is the gay predicament on monogamous relationships which John Jr describes, ". . . .at Ivy League universities where queer-theory professors teach that gay people who want monogamous relationships have self-loathingly internalized the value system of an oppressive patriarchal heteronormative culture. "I might as well have a Scarlet M pinned on my chest". Then we have the problem of a democratic society allowing freedom of speech to those organisations who might remove those very freedoms. John Jr even touches on the history of psychoanalytic theory and the role of the pharmaceutical companies selling drugs to alter the "brain chemistry" of Americans. Shinn gives a picture of the vast, efficient and sophisticated political machine with its spin merchants and power brokers. Then there's the disaffection of intellectual youth, as John Jr says, "I'm surrounded by these privileged kids who attack everything American, who have nothing critical to say about a culture that they think we oppress."

Eddie Redmayne is an interesting new face. Tall and handsomely boyish, his John Jr has the non-compromising integrity of the young although he must also have known that his behaviour is irresponsible, his timing unfortunate and this incident could not have gone unnoticed from the son of the President Elect. Domhnall Gleeson listens to his friend John with empathy disappearing into, yes, the hotel room closet, when requested! Matthew Marsh is John's solid but ambitious father and Nancy Crane his mother Jessica. The various political wheeler dealers and fixers all play their part and when Eddie tells Matt that, "These people hold focus groups on what color ties to wear!" we can believe it. With the real Presidential election in the US imminent, Christopher Shinn's fine play could not be more topical and it's going on my list of best new writing for 2008.

Now or Later
Written by Christopher Shinn
Directed by Dominic Cooke

Starring: Matthew Marsh, Eddie Redmayne
With: Adam James, Domhnall Gleeson, Nancy Crane, Pamela Nomvete
Design: Hildegarde Bechtler
Lighting: Charles Balfour
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Running time: One hour 15 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 1st November 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 13th September 2008 performance at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square London SWI (Tube: Sloane Square)
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