“When you’ve a gun, everybody pays attention.” Who you choose to point the gun at can get you even more attention. If you choose to point it, and not just point it, fire it, at the President of the United States of America then not only will you get attention, you’ll get your own little place in American history. Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Assassins, on at the Keble O’Reilly until November 29th and directed by Silas Elliott, tells the story of the four murderers and five attempted murderers of Presidents throughout history, taking on a revue-show-like format as we learn their stories and their motivations.
It might be expected that portraying characters who resort to such an extreme course of action would be impossibly difficult, but this cast manage to make it look easy. As might be expected, mental illness is pretty much par for the course for the majority of people who would think to attempt something so drastic, but the intelligence of the acting and direction means that even those characters who are somewhat unhinged are all unhinged in their own way. A great example of this is the juxtaposition of Blathnaid McCullagh’s Sara Jane Moore and Heloise Lowenthal’s Lynette Fromme. They’re the only two women, and they both attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford, but McCullagh’s ditzy, prim, accident-prone housewife couldn’t be more different from Lowenthal’s hip but brainwashed Charles Manson devotee.
The appropriately dysfunctional patriarch of the assassins — assembled across time and space to interact with each other in a grimly carnivalesque otherworld — is Sam Breen’s John Wilkes Booth. Breen imbues Booth with the levels of charisma you’d expect from a former stage actor, and from the beginning of the show is representative of the conflict between murdering the President for politics, and murdering the President for attention. Booth gets a ballad in his name, as do two of the other successful assassins, Polish anarchist Leon Czolgosz and hopelessly mad Charles Guiteau, who just wants to promote his book (available for £14.50 on Amazon if you’re interested). We are treated to appropriately strong and affecting performances from Chesney Ovsiowitz (Czolgosz) and Luke Rollason (Guiteau), who hold the audience’s attention and even — perhaps — earn their sympathy.
The collapsing of time in Sondheim’s musical allows for the piece to be bookended by Booth’s murder of Lincoln and Lee Harvey Oswald assassinating JFK, despite the fact that chronologically most of the action shown in the play takes place post-1963. In this production, the roles of the Balladeer and Oswald are combined, but Niall Docherty makes it work, and never having seen the show before, I didn’t realise until afterwards that these were originally separate characters. Docherty has a fantastically sceptical and ironic attitude towards the men he, as Balladeer, tells the stories of, never quite allowing the characters to attain the heroic status they crave.
All the cast are fantastic, both in their singing and acting, and the songs are just as dark and catchy as you’d expect from Sondheim. However, there was a slight problem where at points the words sung couldn’t be heard, either because the music was overpowering the actors’ voices, or because there wasn’t enough enunciation of the words to make them intelligible. This wasn’t a massive problem, but it did let down what is otherwise an excellent performance.
Assassins is a fascinating exploration of the most extreme way to get attention, whether for a political cause, to get the attention of someone you’re obsessed with, or just because your stomach really, really hurts. Whilst the musical doesn’t try to excuse the actions of its subjects, it does prompt you to ask how a just society can allow the poorest and most vulnerable of its population to achieve immortality only by taking a pot-shot at the most powerful man in the world.