Little did Lee Harvey Oswald know that 50 years later his mug shot would still be one of those prolific criminal images, so resonant in pop culture, political and social history, conspiracy theories and art. Or perhaps he did, understanding full well, in his isolated, desperate, frantic mind, that his name could only live on through an act of pre-empted violence.
Michael Hastings’s play premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in 1966, during the heyday of political theatre, and with the assassination still fresh and raw in the public conscience. A combination of verbatim accounts of what occurred in the interrogation room between the Commission and Oswald’s mother and wife, and imagined glimpses into Oswald’s home life, Alex Thorpe’s intimate production retains the immediacy and intensity that the original audience piling into Swiss Cottage must have felt.
Oswald comes across as a fascinating creature. Hastings’s words make him at times eloquent and (most probably unintentionally) profound, yet maintains his deranged, deluded and unhinged mindset. This is a brutal mix. Oswald laments the death of Marx, and chastises wife Marina for buying into that “Hollywood hogwash”. “If you die here, it’s one less, if you die in Russia, the state has lost and ally and a friend”, he believes. For him and his family, there is no American Dream, just a cold, empty feeling of a class suppressed, of prevalent injustice and inequality.
It helps that Oswald is played with such magnetism by Adam Gillen. Gillen’s creation (or interpretation) could pounce, love, strike, cry, whisper or shout at any moment. He is thoroughly unpredictable. Yet, he can be warm and poignant, too; the scene in which he teaches the Russian Marina English, and gently teases her for her pronunciation of body parts “orm” and “end” feels heartfelt. Likewise, Gemma Lawrence as Marina provides a committed and gutsy performance.
Even Georgia Lowe’s set, designed for Unscorched (also currently playing at the Finborough) coupled with Tom Cooper’s lighting design, works to pull out the intrigue and murkiness which still surrounds this period of American history. We are confronted by a kind of carpeted chess board, as characters and action leap forwards, sideways and backwards, never quite reaching a logical and clear conclusion. The stark play with light and shade allows characters to slink into the shadows, as Patrick Poletti as the Commission and Hilary Tones as mother Marguerite desperately try to piece together Oswald’s innocence or guilt.
“The play is an attempt to find Lee Harvey Oswald” I read in the programme notes. I’m not sure it quite does that, or indeed what this actually means, but after two swift hours, the Finborough proves once again that it is the home of thoughtful, punchy, often exhausting political theatre.
Lee Harvey Oswald… plays at the Finborough Theatre on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays until 22 November. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.