Kyoto – The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: Simon Tavener

Writers: Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson

Directors: Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin

Creating theatre out of a neverending series of international climate conferences is a bold choice for any production team. Such events, though vital for the future of our planet, are not obvious source material for an entertaining night in the theatre.

Thankfully, in the experienced and confident hands of Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s intelligently crafted script comes to life in a vibrant, fast-paced and entrancing production that never once feels like it is preaching.

Central to the play and the production as a whole is Stephen Kunken’s towering performance as Don Pearlman, a Washington fixer determined to frustrate the negotiations at every turn. Placing an anti-environmentalist at the heart of a play about saving humanity is absolutely the right choice. Dramatically, it is very much inspired by Shakespeare’s characterisation of Richard III – charismatic, eloquent and always including the audience in the action. And like Richard, when things start to unravel, Pearlman talks less and less to the audience. Kunken does not miss a beat and delivers an award-worthy performance.

He is supported by an excellent ensemble cast who inhabit their many characters with brio and personality. Nancy Crane as the lead US negotiator is the perfect embodiment of a political operator with a steely determination and a shining wit. Jorge Bosch as the Argentinian diplomat trying to keep the talks on track has a charm and warmth that places him at the very heart of the play. As Pearlman’s wife Shirley, Jenna Augen is the emotional core of the piece – reminding us that even seeming villains are complex human beings with families and emotions.

The text is judicious in finding the right balance between humour and drama. At times, it feels like a political farce with elements of slapstick. At others, it is rightly more reflective. It never feels like an information overload which many issue plays often deliver. One sequence that will stay with audiences long after they leave the theatre is the discussion regarding the punctuation of a part of a protocol. The use of rhythm and physicality combine to create a moment of theatrical magic.

There are a couple of elements that need a little more clarity to fully satisfy dramatically. In particular, the role of the enigmatic photographer who stalks the Pearlmans needs more explanation as does the moment with the chandelier. Both sections feel unresolved compared to the rest of the text.

From a visual perspective, it is a fantastic reworking of the Swan auditorium. The audience is made to feel very much part of the negotiating process through a series of immersive touches that give a real sense of place and purpose to the action.

This is an important, intelligent and entertaining play that has a passion behind it from two writers who clearly know how to create great theatre. It absolutely needs to have a life beyond this all-too-brief run in Stratford.

Runs until 13 July 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Engaging, intelligent and entertaining

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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