A Mirror review
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A Mirror review

Mar 28, 2024

Almeida, LondonSam Holcroft’s drama delights in the theatrical trickery of dual identities and false realities to throw a final surprise punch

Extending the long tail of works influenced by Luigi Pirandello’s box of theatrical tricks, Six Characters in Search of An Author, Sam Holcroft’s A Mirror features an author and performers hoping they won’t be searched for. Denied a permit by the minister of culture in an unnamed dictatorship, they have licensed a venue for a wedding, at which Almeida ticket-holders are guests in the flower-bowered auditorium. Following an ominous siren or knock on the door, the actors must quick-change to become nuptial participants while we are ordered to behave like a congregation.

Initially, each main actor has two identities. The registrar becomes, in the play within the wedding, state censor Čelik, both men for some reason black-gloved. The marrying couple jump in and out of bridal dress and groom suit to portray Mei, a junior at the culture ministry, and Adem, a young writer whose script is under scrutiny. The fake best man plays Bax, a pampered state-approved dramatist. But the Pirandellian pleasure comes from our awareness that there must be a third person underneath each doubling. A tiny moment when someone is revealed to have the same name on and off stage hints at what may be happening.

Samizdat theatrics are the basis of two notable one-act dramas – Tom Stoppard’s Cahoot’s Macbeth (1979), featuring a version of Shakespeare’s regime-change play that toured dissident living rooms in communist Czechoslovakia, and a play by the Japanese dramatist Kōki Mitani, anglicised by Richard Harris as The Last Laugh (2007), about a state censor with a secret love of theatre, which may also be a weakness of Čelik.

Full length (two hours) gives Holcroft space to explore not only censorship, but auto-fiction, appropriation and propaganda. Her National Theatre success, Rules for Living (2015), about a catastrophic family gathering, made expert use of the frame-breaking ambushes, but A Mirror has the levels of a multi-storey car park with a locked-off basement. At one moment, by my maths, we are watching a play within a play within a play within a fake wedding.

A Mirror adds to a run of shows that play tricks on the audience, including Lucy Kirkwood’s Rapture and Danny Robins’s 2:22 – A Ghost Story. Recent prominent politicians are the most likely explanation for this fascination with false narrative. My one regret is that A Mirror does not directly address the curiosity in Britain of a form of censorship, on grounds of sensitivity, that is not imposed by the state (indeed, opposed by it) but willingly carried out by many creatives.

A work that teases the audience with repeated false realities faces its greatest test when it must reveal the underlying truth, but, in a final scene where the gloves come off in more than one sense, Holcroft achieves a series of satisfying surprises. Jeremy Herrin’s typically meticulous production observes the crime fiction rules that, while a story can confuse or mislead, it should not wilfully withhold or falsify information.

Shaven-headed and with a startling stare, Jonny Lee Miller mesmerises as Čelik and his variations, while Tanya Reynolds’s Mei shows an extraordinary range from meek to commanding and delivers a single line from Macbeth in a manner that draws applause. Micheal Ward’s Adem and Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Bax offer visions of idealistic young and cynical old writers that have relevance in democracies as well as dictatorships.

At the Almeida theatre, London, until 23 September

Almeida, London