Review: Black Swan Theatre Company, Assassins ·
State Theatre Centre of WA , June 20 ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·
Created by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman in 1991, Assassins tells the stories of nine people who committed or attempted to commit political murder in the US over the past two centuries.
It is a giddy, mind-warping ride on a time-machine. Alternative history meets magic realism, perfect in this disturbing age of “alternative facts”.
I gave birth to my youngest son, Carter, in California a decade ago. And while I am desperate to return on holiday, my little American (he was 10 weeks old when we left the country) is reluctant, on the basis of “Trump and guns”. When fear and loathing of America’s president and gun culture plagues even a West Australian pre-teen, you can safely say Assassins has contemporary resonance.
John Wilkes Booth (Brendan Hanson) tries to rationalise his assassination of Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theatre, blaming him for the Civil War and destruction of the South. Leon Czolgosz (Cameron Steens) rants about the plight of the downtrodden working class. Charles Guiteau (played to comedic perfection by Will O’Mahony) really, really wants to sell copies of his book.
The musical, masterfully directed by Roger Hodgman, with musical direction by Jangoo Chapkhana, moves through various times and places with imagined meetings between the assassins. They rub shoulders at a fairground and a bar. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Mackenzie Dunn) extols the “virtues” of her lover Charles Manson to Sara Jane Moore (Caitlin Beresford-Ord) before the pair gleefully shoot at a bucket of KFC. All of the assassins appear before Lee Harvey Oswald (Finn Alexander) in the Texas School Book Depository, egging him on to shoot JFK.
The result is stunning, thanks to Weidman’s innovative narrative structure and thought-provoking characterisation, and Lawrie Cullen-Tait’s impressive set, onto which are projected photographs and archival footage.
The production invites reflection about the quiet (and not so quiet) desperation of the marginalised, disenfranchised and, perhaps, the mentally ill. It cleverly humanises these names from history without moralising or condoning their crimes.
And as I sat savouring the quirky genius of Sondheim’s music and lyrics and the flawless performances by the Black Swan cast, I had one of those Connectedness-Of-All-Things moments.
You see, I did not name my son after former US president Jimmy Carter, as friends often assume (Trump’s opposite in so many respects); I named him after a San Franciscan showman. While pregnant, I read Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, a fictionalised biography of the magician known as Carter the Great. Much of the novel centres on the mysterious assassination of President Harding, who dies shortly after taking part in Carter’s stage show in 1923.
Harding is not among presidents featured in Assassins, though. There’s Lincoln, McKinley, Roosevelt, Nixon, Kennedy, Ford and Reagan. But no Harding. I had to Google it later: Turns out Harding died of pneumonia after a bout of food poisoning. Gold had simply invented the assassination as a plot device.
So here’s my theory/alternative history: The seed was planted when Gold attended a production of Assassins in New York 1991. He was inspired by the story of Lincoln’s assassination at the theatre in 1865. He loved the musical’s unabashed blending of fact and fiction. After years of labour, his homage to Assassins, his novel/baby, was born in 2001.
Gold’s gift to the world is a novel all about a great escape and a little bit of magic. Watching a musical about political assassinations mightn’t sound very upbeat but somehow Assassins was a great escape from our collective anxiety about what Carter sums up as “Trump and guns”. Even while staring down the barrel of a gun.
And that is a kind of magic.
Top: The cast gave flawless performances. Pictured: Will O’Mahony, Natasha Vickery, Nick Eynaud, Caitlin Beresford-Ord, Brendan Hanson in “Assassins”. Photo: Philip Gostelow.