At a party a few years ago, I had the pleasure of witnessing a debate between two diplomats about the difference between British and French colonialism. "When we went into a place," the young British woman said, "we did not try to make the people British. We were only interested in commerce and making things comfortable for ourselves. Whereas the French went into countries trying to make them more French." Although the age of British empire has passed, the idea of colonialism as a method of remaking the world in one's own image is still germane. It's a powerful idea that gets a thorough airing -- along with difficult questions about guilt, honor, and the value of literature -- in David Hare's A Map of the World, now making its West Coast premiere at TheatreFIRST. If anything, Map is more relevant today than it was in 1983, as our own country has taken to openly throwing its weight around.
As the action shifts smoothly back and forth between a UNESCO conference on poverty and the set of a film based on Victor Mehta's novel about the same conference, Hare's characters are forced to take responsibility for their actions, their behaviors, and their beliefs. As Mehta, a cynical novelist with a strong resemblance to V.S. Naipaul, notes in the second act, "You with your 'Oh, it doesn't matter who wins.' It does matter. What we believe matters more than anything." The line is directed to a young actress he's dallying with, but it could stand for the whole play.
Mehta (Terry Lamb) has been invited to speak at the conference, yet some of the delegates object because his novels tend to skewer Third World politics. He is asked to read a preliminary statement that will essentially invalidate whatever else he has to say. He is unwilling to be thus defanged, but the actress Peggy Whitton -- who has proposed a contest between Mehta and journalist Stephen Andrews -- has other ideas. Although our sympathy lies with Mehta, faced as he is by career diplomats who say things like "We do not give a toss what a novel is," all the other arguments offered, uncomfortable as they may be, start to make sense.
For example, showing other nations up as inferior is apparently just as important to empire as shaping them in our image. The powerful Christine Odera -- last seen in Woman's Will's Pericles as King Simonides -- nails the diplomat M'Bengue's speech on the sacrifice the Third World must make in exchange for aid. "The price you ask us to pay is not money but misrepresentation. The way the nations of the West make us pay is by representing us continually in their organs of publicity as bunglers and murderers and fools." M'Bengue further dissects the Cold War binary: "Pro-Moscow, pro-Washington -- that is the only way you can see the world."
As in Hare's other work, nobody escapes close examination. His work is admirable in that it shows sides of every issue that might not otherwise be represented (as we saw in Via Dolorosa earlier this year). The characters are correspondingly complex. Victor is a philanderer, yet noble and self-righteous (referring to a client state of China's, he says "They are a tongue only. Not even a puppet. They are another man's mouth"). Peggy (Amy Resnick) is smart but irresponsible -- especially interesting, but a little shrill. She is young -- as she says of herself later, "Unmistakably young. Not even sure or confident. But irreplaceably, indecently young." It could be argued that Peggy isn't that unsure -- she's certainly convinced of her sexual desirability and her rationality, and Hare uses those qualities to represent America rather blatantly. Likewise, Stephen (Mark Farrell) -- cautious, conciliatory, and easily offended -- stands in for England.
Like most everything TheatreFIRST does, Map is intelligent, complex, and wide-ranging. Not many plays try to cover both sexual manipulation and the cruelty of the World Bank's structural adjustment programs, but director Clive Chafer and his cast give it a convincing go in a production that moves well without being either simplistic or bombastic.
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