Hampton goes all the way with LBJ
Misunderstood character ... Lyndon Johnson. Photo: Supplied
At the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Christopher Hampton is being celebrated - and rightly so, since his output includes original plays (Total Eclipse, The Philanthropist, White Chameleon), creative adaptations (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, staged by Sydney Theatre Company earlier this year) and award-winning screenplays (Atonement). But the centrepiece is a new work, Appomattox: a big, bold play about race in the US that marks a major departure for Hampton who, in the past, has shown himself to be a wry observer of modern manners and something of a contemporary classicist.
The fact that this festival devoted to a British dramatist is taking place in the American midwest is the result of two visionary Irishmen, pioneering director Tyrone Guthrie, who, 50 years ago, established a dynamic theatre in Minneapolis, and Joe Dowling, who has run the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and is now the Guthrie's artistic director. Having mounted a Tony Kushner season in 2009, Dowling has turned the spotlight on Hampton. There are panels, talks, showings of films Hampton scripted or directed and revivals of Tales from Hollywood and Embers. But there is no doubt that Appomattox is the big event.
Hampton is the quiet man of British theatre and has confounded expectations with a large-cast play on a public theme: the halting progress towards racial equality in American society.
Epic themes ... Christopher Hampton Photo: Gary Medlicott
It takes chutzpah for a British dramatist to tackle such a subject but Hampton has pulled it off and, in the process, revealed, in the footsteps of Robert Caro's acclaimed biography, that Lyndon Baines Johnson was not only a huge character but a hugely misunderstood one.
Hampton's play takes its title from the courthouse in Virginia where, in 1865, the Confederate army surrendered to Union forces in the American Civil War. The first half, which began life as an opera libretto for Philip Glass in 2007 but is here reimagined, charts the final stages of the conflict. But Hampton's play really catches fire in the second half, set largely in the White House during the LBJ presidency exactly 100 years later.
It was a time of civil rights protests and of the passage, encouraged by Martin Luther King, of the new Voting Rights Act, supposedly leading to universal suffrage. LBJ emerges as a tragicomic figure of immense theatrical power. He says of JFK: ''Lotta times when he met a woman, he couldn't remember if he'd f---ed her or made her husband an ambassador.''
But Hampton never lets us forget that while Johnson was a masterly tactician and social progressive, he was haunted by Vietnam.
''I tell you,'' he says, ''that Vietnam's going to be the death of me.'' And, he might have added, of countless thousands of Americans and Vietnamese.
On a technical level, the play could be improved: a coda, set in an Alabama state prison in 2010, feels awkward.
But Appomattox shows Hampton staking out new territory and proving that he's no less adept than David Hare at exploring major public events.
As Hampton's epic reminds us, the idealistic hopes expressed at the end of the American Civil War have still to be realised and race remains a potent and living issue.
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