Theatre review: Assassins at the Gate Theatre, Dublin
The Gate Theatre, Dublin
28 April 2018
Written by: Stephen Sondheim, John Weidman
Director: Selina Cartmell
Cast: Rory Corcoran, Muiris Crowley, Brian Gilligan, Kate Gilmore, Dan Gordon, Ger Kelly, Andrew Linnie, Aoibhéann McCann, Ruth McGill, Sam McGovern, Helen Norton, Rachel O’Byrne, Mark O’Regan, Nicholas Pound, Matthew Seadon-Young
Usually there are a few signs around the entrance to the theatre that warn if there are going to be any sudden loud noises, but I think you could take it for granted that there are likely to be a few gunshots heard in Assassins at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Stephen Sondheim's musical presents accounts of no less than nine people who have plotted to take the life of the incumbent President of the United States of America, and in some cases succeeded. Going out with a bang I guess you could say, and the Gate production makes a bit of an impression as well.
Even as someone unfamiliar with Sondheim and with the musical theatre genre in general, a musical about nine deluded, deranged and dangerous people does strike me as an unusual subject to write songs around. Considering they take place many years apart with no indication that any of them knew one another, I couldn't see how Assassins could be anything more than a series of musical vignettes that possibly delved into the personal backgrounds of each of the nine would-be and actual assassins and the circumstances that led to them pointing a gun at the President. Even though they do indeed take place many years apart, with only Gerald Ford being the target of two different assassins, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman manage nonetheless to weave together 100 years of American history into the production.
The interweaving of separate stories is not purely for dramatic purposes, to provide an overarching narrative rather than a collection of disparate events, but precisely to consider the assassins as a very distinctive and select group of people united by a very singular drive to kill the President of the United States of America. Could there be some common ground? Could they have legitimate grievances about how the USA is governed? Or is the common theme that unites all these individuals merely just mental illness and a sense of self-importance? Even there alone, could that not tell us something deeper about the nature of the where the American Dream meets reality?
Certainly there are on the surface very different motivations between the oldest recorded case here where John Wilkes Booth would shoot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head in a Washington theatre in 1865 and the most recent, John Hinckley Jr, who shot and succeeded in wounding Ronald Reagan in 1981. And yet, there are suspicions that Booth - a stage actor himself - may have been at least in part frustrated by a lack of success and bad press notices and may have seen the shooting of Abraham Lincoln as the ultimate piece of theatre, jumping from the theatre box and shouting 'Sic semper tyrannis!' from the stage straight after the assassination. Hinckley too has some sense of detachment from reality in his obsession with Jodie Foster and her character in the film Taxi Driver, and the shooting of Reagan could also be seen as a theatrical act of attention seeking.
Such little connections creep out also in the lives of Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, the two women who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford merely weeks apart in 1975. One was a disciple of Charles Manson, the other according to Weidman's book at least, came from the same part of the States as Manson, and knew him from school days. Even though the two women never met in real life as far as we know, Sondheim and Weidman establish this connection between them in an amusing target practice scene. The writers similarly have Booth speak as an 'inspiration' to Lee Harvey Oswald, and many of the other assassins similarly connecting with each other on various levels, whether that be common interests and sentiments, political or personal grievances, or - since such a common aim immediately makes you famous - even just on the level of inspiration or awareness of past assassins.
It's important in a stage production then to both clearly demarcate each of the individuals and their rationale, as well as find a common connection or overarching theme that necessarily draws them together. As if the idea of bringing the nine singing assassins onto the stage weren't a strange enough idea on its own, the concept of bringing them together as part of some kind of macabre carnival game is another inspired touch that the production at the Gate Theatre in Dublin wholeheartedly embrace. Each of the would be assassins are offered a gun and a prize (Shoot the Prez! Win a Prize!) by a rather Pennywise-like clown master of ceremonies - a wonderfully sinister Nicholas Pound as 'The Proprietor' - their efforts marked by a Hit or Miss indicator flashing in lights above the stage. The humour is wonderfully black, Sondheim's songs and music also drawing from carnival themes, country music and a wide variety of styles.
The music and singing performances are a constant delight. Inevitably, working with historical characters of clearly rich colourful backgrounds, each of the individuals is well characterised, but the ensemble playing is also exceptionally good and important to the overall impact and Ruth McGill and Rachel O'Byrne are in fine voice in roles where they have much more to do than just sell sticks of candy. It's the comically incompetent roles of course that get the most laughs, but certainly Aoibhéann McCann shooting at a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken as Sara Jane Moore and Dan Gordon as a Santa-suited Samuel Byck in a Dodgems car strike a wonderfully surreal note and really make the most of characters whose motivations and behaviours strike you as the most unfathomable and deranged. It's a close call though, and - as is at least clear from the account of Lee Harvey Oswald - the nature of the musical and songs is clearly insufficient to delve fully into most complex conspiracies and motivations.
What is clear however is that Assassins brilliantly achieves what it sets out to do, creating a platform that allows the spectator to see this diverse group of individuals as a select group of people and perhaps through that tell us something about the nature of the people and government of the United States. First produced in 1990, the contemporary relevance of Assassins still comes through in 2018, when the question of gun control remains a highly controversial issue. The nine assassins might have very little obviously in common with each other and apparently achieved little of any real political change (much less gun controls), but what happens when a person with mental illness, deranged beliefs and a sense of their own superiority gets their hands on a gun with the promise of a prize of fame and immortality, is still very much a relevant and topical subject.