REVIEW: Dirty Hands: A Brexistential Crisis

2016, Brexit, Trump: hot topics and catchy themes?

Brexit brexit in theatre cambridge brexit cambridge student Cambridge Theatre Cambridge theatre review dirty hands dirty hands a brexistential crisis Pembroke pembroke new student theatre

Unfortunately, you can’t always sell everything by pinning the Brexit tag onto it. 

I have ambivalent feelings after seeing Dirty Hands. Performed in Pembroke New Cellars and rewritten by Leo Benedict, it’s a long time since I’ve seen such a talented cast with such impressing performance. Yet it faces the same problem as a half-hearted dissertation which has an interesting research question and a well-written form, but with a methodology which doesn’t fit the topic.

The play aspires to be an updated version of Sartre’s existentialist drama. Sartre’s original problem of dirty hands has a long history in the philosophical debate. It revolves around the philosophy that if you are committing crime for a greater good you will get your hands dirty, but if you refuse to dirty your hands, it’s a selfish act because you  save only yourself. Sartre placed his anti-hero, Hugo in the middle of this dilemma as a committed communist in the planning an assassination against his superior to prevent a deal with fascists.

Hugo dips into a deeper despair when he starts to feel love and respect for his superior. Finally, he kills him because of jealousy and not because of political reasons. No spoiler intended, since this drama is an inverse crime. You know the killer’s identity from the beginning like watching a Columbo episode. The focus is on the doubted motivations.

The message of the original play is clear. “Existence” always precedes “essence” and only the individual is responsible for the acts rather than the circumstances. That’s existentialism in a nutshell. These questions of freedom and responsibility still have a meaning in 2017 without the need to update and modernise it. If you put the story of the political assassination into the frames of the Tories and the Labour party, it won’t be valid anymore. It won’t result in dystopia, but in a mess. Not to mention that it’s quite disconcerting to listen the most prominent future intellectuals moralising about labour struggles while hinting at inside Cambridge jokes.

Harry Redding and Ella Sbaraini. Credits: Johannes Hjorth.

The performances and even the new lines are certainly brilliant. Despite the disputable adaptation, Benedict’s text is clever, funny and natural. However, the embodiment of the characters is the best part of the show. There is a strong chemistry between the actors which does result in a vivid and effective play. Harry Redding is a versatile, multi-faced Hugo, allowing more shades to the original character. The subtle contrast between Ella Sbaraini’s Jessica and Emily Mahon’s Monica presents a broad spectrum of female characters, without being trapped in extremities. Ben Martineau in the part of Hugo’s boss is tempered and dignified.

Alice Jay. Credits: Johannes Hjorth

The supporting cast is outstanding. Carine Valarché so impressively plays several characteristic male figures in a row with the greatest of ease, that the audience gets overtaken with surprise. She finds a fitting partner in Alice Jay who also performs the comic men with jauntiness. Jo Heywood slightly exaggerates the character of the beefy French man, but apart from that, the comic trio is still remarkable.

Carine Valarché. Credits: Johannes Hjorth.

Both the stew and the chocolate truffles of the play appear to taste good but prove unappetising together in one bite. Something similar happened to this play too.

The cast is extraordinary and Benedict is a good writer, yet finding a witty pun, like ‘Brexistential’ is unfortunately not enough to build a whole play around.

3/5 stars