Thirty-eight minutes. That’s how long it takes for Ross Sutherland’s bamboozling play to pull itself together. That’s the halfway point, when we start to go back on ourselves, when the play starts to move in reverse. It’s a palindrome, you see. The whole play. Not letter by letter, or word by word, but line by line.
In some near future a new government, the Freedom Party, populated by dashing young politicians, has imposed a blackout on all political media. So when news host Sir David Bradley (Simon Hepworth) secures an interview with media minister Amanda Barkham (Zara Plessard) for his 'Newsnight'-esque show, he thinks it’s a coup. Instead, it’s a trap.
The trouble with a palindromic play is that you don’t get the effect until halfway through. At the beginning as Bradley - an old school, old male journo like Paxman or Humphrys - paces around his home watching footage of himself, he spouts phrases that are too fragmentary to cohere. It’s only when we see them in reverse order that they begin make sense.
It’s contrived, certainly, but self-referential lines - about the way news ‘holds a mirror up to society’ or living ‘a double life’ - justify the palindrome form. It’s not just flash for it’s own sake; instead it’s a way of representing what news is, what politicians are, and how the two reflect each other. Both manipulate language for their own ends. They are, like the lines in this play, opposites and equals. And both take a bruising as the scathing satirical message of the play starts to sear.
Sutherland has form playing with, well, form - his last show ‘Standby For Tape Backup’, an amazingly moving piece about memory and grief, featured live manipulation of a VHS tape - but, even if ‘Party Trap’ lacks some of that show’s heart, this is an astonishing next step.
The first half might seem like too much set-up, and the acting isn’t natural enough to compensate for the weirdness but, bloody hell, it’s a clever bit of writing with a super-stylish alt-future aesthetic. Sutherland’s sheer skill means he’s pulled it off. Something unparalleled in design, a proper play, a proper palindrome, with theme reflected in form reflected in theme in form reflected in…well, you get the point.