sat 22/06/2024

This Much I Know, Hampstead Theatre review - an intellectual game with a slight emotional payload | reviews, news & interviews

This Much I Know, Hampstead Theatre review - an intellectual game with a slight emotional payload

This Much I Know, Hampstead Theatre review - an intellectual game with a slight emotional payload

Jonathan Spector is a Stoppard fan, but might Mamet have been better?

Soviet union: Natalie Kalmar and Oscar Adams The Other Richard

How do you make a play out of Stalin’s defecting daughter Svetlana, the psycho-economic theories of Daniel Kahneman and a fictionalised version of Derek Black, the son of a leading American white nationalist?

Playwright Jonathan Spector, who reveals in a programme note that one of his favourite British dramatists is Tom Stoppard, has had a lot of fun playing in the same dramaturgical sandpit. HIs new play at the Hampstead, This Much I Know, is a sparely staged three-hander, but it cleverly expands to cover all the above ideas and references within the context of the faltering relationship of a psychology lecturer and his traumatised wife, who has (guiltlessly) caused the death of a cyclist. The question is, would the play have benefitted from a simpler, tighter focus? 

Things begin unusually with the house lights up: the audience seems to be in a lecture hall, where a wall projection announces that course Psych 203, Cognitive Psychology, will be held. A livewire man bounces in to address us, with what seems like the standard performance warning about turning off our phones. But then he starts probing the behaviour of people who don’t switch their phones all the way off, and it’s clear this is the lecturer for Psych 203, Lukesh (a suitably intense Esh Alladi, pictured below). The lights duly go down.

Lukesh is from the let-me-entertain-you school of lecturing. He uses daft projections of Santa and the Tooth Fairy, a bouncy baby, an old cowboy and a lone Tater Tot to make his points, which concern the mysteries of decision-making and what we base our choices on. But despite his energetic, almost hectoring delivery, he can’t rid himself of what’s really troubling him: the three terse texts his wife has sent him, which may or may not mean she is leaving him.

Esh Alladi as Lukesh in This Much I KnowWhat unfolds over the next two hours is a multi-stranded tale of people searching for answers. Not just Lukesh, intent on making his wife tell him whether their marriage is over. His writer wife Natalya (a delicate turn from Natalie Klamar) is looking for answers about Svetlana Alliluyeva, who she believes was her grandmother’s childhood friend and possibly responsible for her escape from Stalin's purges of the late 1930s. This sends Natalya on a trip to Russia, where she encounters a succession of men who may or not be able to help her, all played by young Oscar Adams in an impressively authentic accent. 

Adams, though, also plays a more significant voice in this polyphony, as Harold, the son of the founder of TrueNation, a white supremacist website, who is looking for answers about his father’s toxic teachings. He comes to Lukesh to ask him to be his thesis supervisor on the subject of H G Wells, whom he is interested in for intriguing reasons. Word has got out on campus about his true identity, and he is battling the massed forces of cancel culture. Lukesh is highly sceptical, bordering on hostile towards him, but the two tease out which elements of Harold’s father’s ideology Harold still subscribes to, and what he has rejected. (Harold’s father talks to him from a TV monitor, with a Confederate flag behind him; Stalin communicates with his daughter in a similar way, enhancing the sense ot the emotional distance between them.) 

Spector gives Harold some cogent arguments supporting those of his father’s beliefs he has not rejected, and it becomes clear Harold is at base a rational man with a broad idealistic streak, rather than a no-holds-barred white supremacist. When his recanting leads to a tragedy, he becomes as haunted by what-if scenarios as Natalya is about the accident she was involved in. But his story is left more or less dangling as the focus switches to Natalya’s researches and Svetlana’s relationship with a terminally ill Indian man.

This is an inventive production (designed by Blythe Brett, directed by Chelsea Walker) that uses just a large dark-wood desk in a zigzag shape for its set, with video projections — some covering the whole back wall — adding visual impact. The segues between characters, countries, whole decades are done with maximum economy and speed: as Svetlana, for example, Kalmar simply and quickly ties her hair back and produces a desk microphone to address unseen press briefings; Adams switches from a Russian to an American accent in the same sentence. (Almost too much speed: I heard audience members at the interval trying to untangle who was who and clearly being flummoxed.)

Esh Alladi as Lukesh in This Much I KnowThe real-life model for Harold, Derek Black, thanks to the students who didn’t cancel him but engaged with him, went on to renounce his father’s credo publicly and has become an anti-racism activist. What a great play Spector could have made of that process, more Mamet than Stoppard, and how well this strong cast would have risen to it, especially given Adams’s powerful stage presence.

What we have instead is a sort of game, where the academic superstructure Spector builds up around cognition is ultimately undermined by his denouement. As he knows it will be. Thanks to the excellence of the staging and cast, it’s not remotely dull, but it doesn’t carry enough of an emotional payload to send you home feeling stimulated, either intellectually or emotionally.

Word has got out on campus about Harold's true identity, and he is battling the massed forces of cancel culture


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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