A Mirror: the more you stare at it, the less there is to see

Jonny Lee Miller and Tanya Reynolds in A Mirror
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The less you know about Sam Holcroft’s superficially seductive new play, starring Trainspotting star Jonny Lee Miller, the more you initially are likely to enjoy it. It’s a drama built on sleight of hand – a rare joy these days – and as such is slickly served by Jeremy Herrin’s slippery production, which juggles its shifting realities with the skill of a magician pulling rabbits out of hats. Yet like a house of cards, it collapses under the slightest pressure. It’s a risky business to rely alone on technical dazzle.

Miller plays Celik, the deputy minister for Culture in an authoritarian regime who has a transgressive desire to nurture a new generation of brilliant playwrights able to penetrate the deeper truth of life. He sees precisely this potential in Adem, a former soldier and wannabe playwright, yet Adem is much more interested in replicating the truth of life as it really is, from the hardship experienced by his neighbours to the dulce et decorum est reality of war. Slowly but stealthily, the totalitarian spirit of the regime closes in, and before long Adem is in prison with his fingers broken. Forget subtle ideas about the role and purpose of art: the play disintegrates into agitprop.

It’s refreshing to see a playwright adroitly experimenting with form, but the irony is A Mirror might have interrogated its ideas more effectively as an Ibsenite character study. Miller gives an entertainingly inflated performance as the awkwardly bullish Celik, his voice a raspy mix of impatience, conviction and social discomfort, his body an extended twitching nerve. His tragedy is that Celik is blinded to the contradictory nature of his passions – his “deeper truth” is a gilded version of life as one would hope it to be, about as far away from his beloved (and banned) Shakespeare as Adem’s faithful reportage. Yet the play is ultimately interested only in binary ideas about censorship and artistic freedom and in ramming home the importance of art with a capital A. It does little to implicate the audience in its own moral arguments.

There’s outsized fun from Geoffrey Streatfeild as a boozy playwriting lech while Micheal Ward and Tanya Reynolds provide decent support as Adem and Mae, a diffident naïf who works for Celik. Herrin directs with witty panache, with spoofy spooky cello strings amplifying the growing sense of unease. The final rug-under-feet twist is a blinder, but the play ends up reinforcing the very conventions of dystopian realism it initially appears intent on subverting. The more you stare at this play, the less there is to see.

Until Sep 23. Tickets: 020 7359 4404; almeida.co.uk

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