Caught the matinee of Matt Charman's new play The Observer in the Cottesloe yesterday. It's well made, about something important and directed with huge confidence by Richard Eyre - proper stuff.
Fiona Russell, played with wonderful spiky assurance by Anna Chancellor, is deputy chief of the operation to monitor that a fair election process is carried out in an unnamed West African country. She is good at her job, but more dangerously believes that democracy, in its absolute form will bring benefit and change to the people. This leads her to overstep the mark and through tenacity and the occasional blinked vision begin to influence as much as observe, keeping polling stations open beyond the allotted time and trying to register thousands of additional voters between the two rounds of the election. On the way her impartiality shifts and what begins as well meaning liberalism turns rapidly into a crusade. Perspective gone she encourages villagers to stand up in the face of violent intimidation, judges to expunge protocols, her team to abandon diplomatic language in their report and the press to broadcast disturbing images of police brutality. The speed of her conversion is dizzying and is beautifully nuanced by the suggestion that her romanticism is driven by a simple truth, pertaining to most idealists. She is lonely and in need of recognition.
Occasionally the play over reaches, a threatening encounter with the head of the military to negotiate the terms under which the incumbent President might concede or the open bribery of the Foreign Office official trying to glean information from Fiona's translator Daniel - but in general the exhilarating pace with which the action is moved, complete with Lloyd Hutchinson brilliantly cynical News 24 correspondent sound biting cliches to camera, keep the audience on the edge of seats as the personal and political situation unfolds.
At heart the play is a Platonic call to keep observers and interventionists apart. Charman knows both are needed but the work unheroically reveals the coercive bullshit of those who seek to empower the internal process rather than simply handing over power. As such it identifies the dangers of the West's post-imperial relationship with Africa much more sensitively than the ultra emotive Death and the Kings Horsemen, currently addressing a similar theme in the Olivier. That Charman is an excellent wordsmith as well as producing cracking plots makes the work all the more convincing.