If you want to consider the rise and fall of the charismatic male and can’t face switching on PMQs, you could look at the roles taken by Ralph Fiennes. Munching massive scripts as if they were single lines, Fiennes has used his magnetically prowling presence to light up Hamlet and Coriolanus, Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman and Ibsen’s The Master Builder. His repertoire is strikingly expanded in Nicholas Hytner’s production of David Hare’s new play, Straight Line Crazy, which has echoes of the Ibsen. Fiennes is the dramatiser of the singular voice; Hare at his strongest, as here, is a playwright who brings not merely individuals, but systems under scrutiny.
The career of Robert Moses slices fascinatingly across obvious political allegiances. Though never elected to public office, he was responsible for the reshaping of New York in the mid-20th century, pushing through his plans for the opening up of the city with a mixture of vision, bullying and legerdemain.
The two halves of Straight Line Crazy show Moses towards the beginning and end of his professional life. In the 1920s, his plans sound glorious: new parks, beaches made accessible for city dwellers by bridges and expressways.
His disregard for regulation looks like leonine contempt for unnecessary bureaucracy. He bulldozes through old money’s vested property interests: Guy Paul is a nicely relaxed Vanderbilt. He wins round NYC’s governor, Al Smith: astute, whisky-swilling and charming, Danny Webb remarks ruefully that he leaves Moses feeling robbed, without quite knowing what has been taken. His young staff are sparky but over-struck with admiration: a fervent Siobhán Cullen as planner Finnuala Connell proclaims that working with him was like galloping across plains on horseback: hey, whoa there!
Thirty years on, the schemes look less uplifting. The Cross Bronx Expressway is known as the “heartbreak highway” by residents whose houses fell in its path; they were mainly black. The bridges in Long Island were built too low for buses, so the poor, again often black, were kept out. Grassroots opposition to wholesale slum clearance and utter car dependency is strongly articulated by the author and campaigner Jane Jacobs; Moses is heard deriding handbag activists. Hare is sketchier in this half, scattering too many cameos, but he deals cogently with Jacobs’s case, shaking himself free of sentimental feminism (I bet someone will be saying that women are ovarianly opposed to straight lines), allowing Jacobs herself to point out that her success brought division in its wake as property prices soared.
In shirtsleeves and braces, Fiennes begins by muscling his way across the stage as if he might buckle down to demolishing a few walls himself; by the end of the evening, he looks more shrunken in a suit. He is remarkable as an actor in being so uningratiating; it is harder to perform being simply unlikable than it is to play the villain. Moses’s dynamism begins to look like a defence against inner rot.
It is bold and unusual for a play to illuminate how people’s lives are shaped not only by arguments but by the space around them, by system and infrastructure. Bob Crowley’s design of bare wood walls becomes covered with white models of the city that, under Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting, gradually assume colour and depth. George Fenton’s score, with nervy strings and siren hoots, vibrates with urban anxiety. Audiences in search of further architectural arguments for wide spaces and unobstructed views need only look around them, at the splendour of the Bridge theatre, only five years old but indispensable.
The Human Voice is purposefully shorn of social context. The danger of individuals being cut off from one another is its point. Responding to complaints by female actors that his work too seldom allowed them to, well, show off, Jean Cocteau wrote a monologue in the voice of a woman who has been left by her lover. She is making final tidying-up arrangements – emotional and practical – with him. She does so on the phone, which at the play’s first staging in 1930 counted as new technology: it came with a curly cable and a line that could be interrupted by other callers.
Ivo van Hove, not a director to hold back from intervention with a text, has added few modernising touches other than a mobile but aims to emphasise the play’s currency by underlining the sealed-off circumstances. Jan Versweyveld’s design imprisons the action behind a huge sliding window. Hello – rather obviously – lockdown.
The effect is intriguing, not electrifying: an exercise in what can be done on stage, when what is said and what is seen contradict each other. Of course she isn’t smoking (she has a cigarette in her hand); yes, she is feeling strong (she bites her fist to stuff up her sobs). The part has been played by Ingrid Bergman and, directed by Pedro Almodóvar, Tilda Swinton. A film, starring Danielle de Niese, of Poulenc’s operatic adaptation will be shown on BBC Two at Easter. The only real reason to see this stage version is the fascination that is Ruth Wilson. She comes on in a cartoon nightshirt, shaking the sleeve of an outsize jumper (it is his) on to her arm. She is a contradiction within herself; her voice and her movements argue with each other. Her speech is mostly level, caressing, cajoling, dulcet even when threatening. Her gestures are liquid; she slides across the stage; her face with its flyaway eyes seems about to take off.
Star ratings (out of five)
Straight Line Crazy ★★★★
The Human Voice ★★★