Writer: Beau Willimon
Director: Guy Unsworth
Reviewer: Andy Moseley
Farragut North is the Washington Metro station that is the drop off point for people working in think tanks, lobby companies and advocacy groups in the US. As play names go, it’s hard to find one more oblique, given that the play isn’t set in the district, but is set in Iowa during the US primaries, charting a familiar path of political careers destroyed by over-ambition and an inability to wait for the prize.
Stephen Bellamy is a rising star in Democrat campaigning. He is press secretary to the candidate who appears on course for the Democratic presidential nomination. His boss is Paul Zara, a veteran campaigner, who has seen too many candidates fall by the wayside to get carried away, but remains confident their strategy that will see them through.
So far, so good, but plain sailing and unmitigated success are not the ingredients of classic plays, so something has to go wrong, either for Bellamy, the candidate he’s working for, or both. Into the space marked ‘disruptive influence’ comes Tom Duffy, the campaign manager for the nomination rival. Sharper and more disreputable than Zara, he wants Bellamy on his team and has some persuasive figures to try and convince him to jump ship. Torn between loyalty and ambition, the decision Bellamy makes, or fails to make, will ultimately affect more people than just him.
While plays like this would once have had an inbuilt element of surprise in exposing the behind the scenes machinations of politics, films such as Primary Colors, along with real life events including the 1999 presidential elections mean scandal is far more commonplace, and the bar has been raised for any new script to be able to join the pantheon of great political plays.
Farragut North is intriguing, with enough twists and turns to keep the outcome unpredictable, but struggles to offer a unique angle or point of view. It is not helped by having become the basis of the George Clooney film The Ides of March, meaning that anyone who has seen that film will eventually recognise the central story, even if they don’t know the link between the two pieces.
The best characters are the old hands of Zara and Duffy, both well drawn in Beau Willimon’s script and superbly brought to life by the actors, particularly Shaun Williamson who gives such a strong performance as Zara, capturing the attitude, mannerisms and stature of a veteran campaigner, that I almost feel guilty for mentioning that he’s better known as Barry from EastEnders. His performance here transcends anything seen in that soap.
It of course helps that the script gives him a lot to play with, and in this respect the character of Bellamy is not as well drawn. The ultra ambitious political animal is instantly recognisable but is neither ruthless enough in pursuit of his own agenda, or committed enough to his candidates cause for an audience to really invest in his dilemma. The film version is more successful in this respect as it adds extra layers to the story and has a greater complexity of motivations and possible consequences that Bellamy has to weigh up both when making his decision and when dealing with the outcome.
Ultimately the play is a good insight into a world where motivations are cloaked in ambiguity and duplicity, and winning the vote and destroying the opposition are something that other people’s careers can be willingly sacrificed for, but it doesn’t give sufficient warmth and insight into the main character to mean it can be considered alongside the best examples of the genre.