John Nathan

Political theatre

With playhouses closed, it took American politics to provide on-screen drama, says our theatre critic John Nathan


WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 9: In this screenshot taken from a webcast, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) – lead manager for the impeachment speaks on the first day of former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial at the U.S. Capitol on February 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. House impeachment managers will make the case that Trump was “singularly responsible” for the January 6th attack at the U.S. Capitol and he should be convicted and barred from ever holding public office again. (Photo by via Getty Images)

February 18, 2021 09:17

Since playhouses closed on March 17, 2020 theatre-makers have attempted to reach audiences through laptops. The results have often been noble, yet a shadow of the art form they exist to replace.

But then last week online theatre finally came up with a production that had the kind of gripping drama not seen since it was possible for audiences and actors to share a space indoors.

The stage was the United States senate which on January 6 had been overrun by a blood-thirsty mob. The event was the impeachment of President Donald Trump who was charged with inciting the crowd.

As in the best drama, expectations were defied. Most observers had an idea of how events would unfold. Arguments would be put by the Senate’s House managers against the former president; they would be rebuffed by his legal team and Republican senators would refuse to vote in the required numbers to impeach no matter how damning the evidence. That is pretty much how it turned out.

But what had not been anticipated was the sheer potency of the case against Trump being compiled by the House legal team led by Jamie Raskin, the Jewish lawyer and Representative for Maryland’s 8th district who speaks with the authority of one of his nation’s founding fathers and has a bald patch at the back of his head that looks like a kippah.

His contributions were forensic in their detail, irresistible in their logic and as heroic as those given by such great fictional and factual lawyers as Atticus Finch and Clarence Darrow.

Raskin’s dismantling of his opponents’ early objection that you cannot impeach a president if he is not in office was an early indication of the quality of argument he would deploy throughout the proceedings. With the clarity of winter sunlight he pointed out that if his opponents were right, a president’s final week could never be held to account.

But it was when legal argument gave way to testimony that the silent Senate chamber crackled with the kind of tension more often seen in a production of Miller’s The Crucible. Here Raskin described how he was in Congress with his 24-year-old daughter and son-in-law on the day of the riot. The day before, he and his family had buried his son (who had suffered from depression and committed suicide) and senators from both sides of the house had, Raskin said, offered their support and sympathy.

His voice became increasingly strained as he remembered the sound of the mob later pounding on doors and his daughter and son-in-law whispering and texting goodbyes to loved ones, afraid they were about to die.

But, aided by his fellow House managers, Raskin was at his most potent when weaving the American constitution into his own case along with the carefully set out evidence of Trump’s guilt. Much of it using video evidence.

The response by the former president’s legal team was a car crash. There had been much talk that no decent lawyer would work for Trump, but what followed was so staggeringly inept it supplied the comedic relief that all serious drama needs.

Counsel Bruce Castor kicked off his defence by accidentally describing himself as a prosecutor.

He was supported by his colleague Michael van der Veen who summoned a tone of indignant outrage, presumably in the hope of giving his rambling irrelevances some heft, triumphantly citing Trump’s single use of the word “peaceful” during the fateful incendiary speech on January 6 as proof that there was no incitement.

Raskin responded devastatingly by comparing Trump to a bank robber who, on the way out, shouts that it’s wrong to steal.

Trump would have been better off hiring David Brent from The Office to represent his innocence through the power of breakdance. It would at least have been less cringeworthy.

Of course, in all the most popular courtroom dramas, good is usually on the side of the defence which is why they tend to end with acquittals. The brilliance of this one is that it breaks that mould. Here, good was on the side of the prosecution and our faith that, no matter what their prejudices, jurors — even Republican senators — are open to reasoned, humane argument, is subverted.

The result was a sobering reality check. But as entertainment, streaming drama online has reached new heights.


February 18, 2021 09:17

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