Theft of Imagination
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 18, 2007
Two countries have been at war for a very long time, as far back as anybody can remember. Their people practice different religions and temples and shrines sacred to each are located behind the other's borders. The last round of peace negotiations broke down four years ago when the brother of one country's chief diplomat was kidnapped and murdered by the other side. Can the cycle of destruction ever be broken?
Theft of Imagination, the courageous and smart new play by David Negrin, suggests a way out. The Holy Men of each country appoint two boys—one from each nation—to hammer out a settlement. The boys are brought together for 13 days to solve the crisis. Can they do it?
Negrin wisely avoids both cliche and the specifics of any particular conflicts here, focusing instead on the battling impulses for war and peace that seem to be programmed in homo sapiens' DNA. One boy is reserved, introverted, and approaches his task by the books, having studied the techniques of diplomacy and negotiation handed down through the ages. The other boy is outgoing, spirited, and follows his own naive impulses to find rapprochement. I won't tell you how the play turns out, but I will tell you that the boys learn much from each other and that the progress of their relationship proves that a solution is always possible. Negrin doesn't shy away from making some breathtakingly radical proposals in this play; his idealism is refreshing and welcome.
Each boy has a "handler," i.e., an experienced diplomat who is advising him during the negotiations. Like the boys, they're a study in contrast. Unlike the boys, they've known each other for a very long time; perhaps they can even be called friends. Negrin uses these characters to great effect to represent the harsh realities of a world ruled by expedience, cynicism, and greed. Theft of Imagination is, finally, an allegory dressed as a contemporary international thriller (or vice versa): it's an exciting play, filled with unpredictable turns of events, and equally brimming with surprising notions that succeed in challenging our assumptions about the issues at its heart.
Negrin has co-directed the play with Kat Chamberlain (and both are co-producers with David Keller). Their spare staging is effective; a particularly helpful conceit is that each of the countries is represented consistently by one color, green or orange, making it simple for the audience to keep track of which side everybody's on. Detailed, intriguing maps and other graphic/scenic elements (by Chamberlain, Negrin, and Chris Negrin) are similarly invaluable to the production.
Adult actors Max Hambleton and Kit Redding have the difficult task of convincing us that they are each about 10 years old, and Hambleton is especially successful here; he creates a fully-fleshed-out, believable boy trying very hard to do something that grown-ups have found impossible. As their handlers, Christopher Hurt and Angus Hepburn do expert work, keeping the boys, each other, and us guessing all the time as to their actual motives. Brad Russell completes the ensemble in the smaller role of one of the Holy Men who dreamed up the scheme in the first place.
Negrin's writing is sharp, informed, and provocative. The play could use some tightening—it's nearly three hours long and I suspect about 30 minutes could be excised. The ending, in particular, takes a long time to unfold. But when it comes, it proves worth the wait: Negrin's vision is exciting and singular. As we sit on the sidelines bearing witness to conflicts as diverse as two strikes in the entertainment industry and decades-old wars all around the globe, the ideas promulgated in Theft of Imagination resonate vividly. There are quite a few people in positions of authority who ought to see this play.
As for me, I look forward to what Negrin comes up with next, and also to future work from Chamberlain's company, the quirkily named Are The Fish Happy? Theatre. Chamberlain and Negrin host a talkback after each performance, giving people on both sides of the (metaphorical) footlights a chance to discuss and debate the topics introduced in the play, which is still another evidence of the healthy respect that these artists have for their audience and their craft.