One could not accuse Howard Korder of not having anything to write about. In the programme notes for the UK premiere of his 2010 play In A Garden, he references the relationship between the political and the aesthetic, the inexorable passage of time and the lasting beauty of art as just a few of the themes he sets out to tackle. And at first, one almost believes he’ll pull it off. There is much to praise in the continued meetings of Hackett, an ambitious if hitherto unsuccessful American architect, and Othman, the Culture Minister of a fictional Middle Eastern country who has commissioned him to build a structure – a pavilion, gazebo, summerhouse or the like – which, though insignificant, must be beautiful.
As the design process steadily takes over both of their lives, with artistic differences and political impositions obstructing the building’s actual construction, Korder does well to maintain the tension on which any theatrical game of dialogue-heavy cat-and-mouse must rely. The interplay between Hackett and Othman is often strong, sometimes delicious, and helped in no small part by a particularly fine performance from Hassani Shapi as the Aqaati Minister of Culture. Whilst Keir Charles’s architect is solid but fairly one-note (and not to mention a little too similar to Charles’s performance in the first play of the Ustinov’s season, Red Light Winter), Shapi seems comfortable to continually modulate his performance, enhancing the impression that the two hours of stage time in fact reflect over ten years of life lived and setbacks suffered.
It takes nowhere near as long as that for the ideas that Korder speaks of – ideas which, for the first few scenes remain latent, understated and satisfyingly implicit – to rear their hyperbolised heads and yowl like a pack of wolves which refuse to be muzzled. There is little subtlety in the discovery that Hussein-esque dictator Brother Najid employs a butcher as his double. Similarly, the persecuted minorities of the North are so redolent of the Kurdish people as to approach parody, and the closing lines are so heavily perfumed with sanctimonious, self-aggrandising sentiment, it’s a wonder the front rows weren’t coughing.
Yet though Richard Beecham’s production cannot hide the fact that the work is around twenty minutes too long, it is admirably polished, with an efficient design from Simon Kenny and nuanced lighting courtesy of Fergus O’Hare. He finds a tentative balance between the explicit ideological arguments of the text and the central relationship between architect and patron, reaping dividends from the detailed work he has clearly done with his cast. Above all, Beecham ought to be congratulated for his handling of the final scene, which, despite being able to overcome the saccharine spitefulness of those closing lines, is nigh-on redemptive. For not only does he elicit a strong supporting performance from Mark Heenehan, but provides a potent visual metaphor for the futility of regime change which, in its combination of blatancy and power, strikes a gratifyingly strong chord.