The Act of Killing review – too polite for some assassination scenes

Just as with Suzan-Lori Parks’ recent Trumpy years examination of race and politics in Homebody/Kabul, The Act of Killing, Philip Dawkins’s latest play about the history of violence is in some ways a risky…

The Act of Killing review – too polite for some assassination scenes

Just as with Suzan-Lori Parks’ recent Trumpy years examination of race and politics in Homebody/Kabul, The Act of Killing, Philip Dawkins’s latest play about the history of violence is in some ways a risky play. It deals in historical revisionism: not the history itself, but the present attempt to either preserve or undermine that which has already happened. The Assassins is in part a play about cowardice and ambition and simply does not make enough use of its characters’ strengths: good sense, moral integrity, and generous character.

Such characters include former US president James Polk who in 1824 appoints Jeffrey Garfield to be his assassin, for he has the vision and the motive to depose the embattled new president, Aaron Burr. Garfield is a vigorous man whose chief weapon is a combination of common sense and apparently strong wills. In his first act, Garfield resists the “diseased pomp” of a childish Baroque Rodin bust. He appeals for peaceful negotiations between the Burr’s supporters and the Burr’s critics, even engaging in unguarded banter in which, impressively, the spectators of his performance are willing to fall in with him. When the gunman is (after much hesitation) unmasked by his former wife, who is not at the play’s start the audience’s proxy heroine, Mr Polk is cheered into triumph.

‘The Act of Killing’ … Philip Dawkins’s latest work about the history of violence, The Assassins. Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk

However, Garfield soon becomes trapped in the “troubled night-life” of his presidency, a period that sees him surrounded by agents of the law even though the lawfulness of his actions has been questioned. Dawkins excels at infusing his performances with a deep sense of character, but one suspects that Garfield is more enjoyable than he is; what he ultimately serves up is too syrupy, unimaginative, and not long enough. So far, three amazing performances have failed to make a splash.

On the other hand, there are some spectacular performances in Act One. John Patrick Amedori’s Garfield is a testament to undiminished good sense and a man of his word who is not easily disillusioned, and who will take your side if he thinks he has already won. Anakin Fitzgerald’s speech about growing up in the states and being a “white man with a brown skin” is straight out of the Trump era; his incredibly skilled theatrical acting is entirely appropriate.

If, in the meantime, we leave a play that does not impress, we find a play that is unafraid to tackle questions of how far we can go to destroy the cultures and the people we hate. When it comes to leading a double life as a “conservative”, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions (played by Stephen Hill) gleefully narrates his victimisation in his own terms, unable to accept an acknowledgement that he is “not exempt from blame”.

Most importantly, The Act of Killing, in its seemingly unanswerable questions of the morality of killing or “disappearing” the person against whom you have sworn to “do no harm”, is a moral parable. The Assassins may be too polite and too willing to listen to rational argument – at one point Garfield actually has a cry – but its message is clear: it’s just not possible to sort people by “loyalty” or “inflated ego”.

• The Act of Killing is at Manchester International Festival until 16 October; The Assassins is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 20 October

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